Science by judge

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A U.S. District Judge has ruled that Listerine can't keep running their ads saying that Listerine is as good as flossing:

U.S. District Judge Denny Chin said in a decision made public Friday that he will order Pfizer, the maker of Listerine, to stop the advertising campaign. The lawsuit was brought by a Johnson & Johnson company that makes dental floss.

"Dentists and hygienists have been telling their patients for decades to floss daily," Chin wrote. "They have been doing so for good reason. The benefits of flossing are real -- they are not a 'myth.' Pfizer's implicit message that Listerine can replace floss is false and misleading."

The judge ruled after McNeil-PPC Inc., a Johnson & Johnson subsidiary, filed a lawsuit saying that false claims in the advertising campaign that began last June posed an unfair threat against its sales of dental floss.

Pfizer in print ads had featured a Listerine bottle balanced equally on a scale opposite a floss container with the words: "Listerine antiseptic is clinically proven to be as effective as floss at reducing plaque and gingivitis between the teeth."

The campaign also featured a television commercial titled the "Big Bang." In it, the commercial announces that Listerine is as effective as floss and that clinical tests prove it, though it does add that there is no replacement for flossing.

The judge said "substantial evidence" demonstrates that flossing is important in reducing tooth decay and gum disease and that it cannot be replaced by rinsing with a mouthwash.

The judge also noted that the authors of articles on which Pfizer based its ad campaign had emphasized that dental professionals should continue to recommend daily flossing and cautioned that they were not suggesting that mouthrinse be used instead of floss.

Here's the thing, though:

  1. Pfizer never claimed that flossing wasn't good or that people shouldn't floss.
  2. They did claim that studies show that Listerine is as good as flossing. However, this claim is true.

So, what exactly is the problem?

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5 Comments

A judge who has a limited grasp of the First Amendment?

P.S. Your link is broken (you've swapped the URL and the link text).

There are many problems:

- You have only pointed to three very limited studies.

- We don't know who paid for those studies.

- Most importantly, we don't know if the judge was shown additional studies or information about those studies that helped him make his decision.

- We haven't seen the actual judgement, only CNN's story.

(1) In what way do you believe these studies were limited? They seem to be more or less the standard type of controlled trial to me.

(2) Why does it matter who paid for the trials, assuming they were done correctly and accepted by a peer-reviewed journal in the usual fashion? Remember that the studies that are used to get approval for drugs are generally funded by the drug companies. Did Pfizer's ads claim that there were independent studies or merely that there were studies.

(3) I suppose it's possible that there are other studies that the judge relied upon, but a cursory medline search doesn't turn any up. Based on the article, it certainly appears that he's mostly relying upon conventional wisdom.

(1) They have relatively small number of participants (given how little it would cost to measure larger number of people, how much the result goes against the accepted wisdom, and how much it would save the world if the results were proven to be true).

(2) We all know that studies funded by a manufacturer that isn't going well might get axed before the reporting phase.

(3) That's a huge leap of faith, particularly since your reading the CNN spin on what the judge said, not even his actual reading.

You could be right on all of this, of course, but trusting CNN *and* the manufacturer of the stuff to get it right seems awfully trusting for someone like you (or me).

(1) Huh? You do understand that there are established statistical techniques for establishing whether you have a large enough sample size, right? In particular, these studies had plenty of statistical power to distinguish both flossing and mouthwash from the negative control and in at least one case had enough statistical power to distinguish mouthwash from flossing. What reason do you have for thinking these studies were too small?

(2) Well, there is always the issue of publication bias, but I don't see any real evidence that's happened here. If it's so easy to get studies that say what you want, why don't we have studies from dental floss manufacturers demonstrating that mouthwash is worse than dental floss?

(3) It's not really a leap of faith at all. Rather, I did the medline search looking for other literature and didn't find any. What makes you think that there is?

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