Two Schoolgirls Force GlaxoSmithKline to Apologize for Deceptive Food Advertising and to Pay Fine

Two recent studies have noted that alcohol industry advertising has a strong effect on youth and contributes to underage drinking. In January of 2006, the American Medical Association’s Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine published a study by Snyder et al which found that the number of alcohol ads viewed was positively associated with the amount of alcohol consumed by youth. Each advertisement viewed raised the number of drinks consumed by 1%.

In 2004, two 14 year old New Zealand school girls, Anna Devathasan and Jenny Suo, tested the Vitamin C levels of their favorite drinks for a school science project. One product, Ribena, made by GlaxoSmithKline(GSK), the world’s second largest drug manufacturer, tested much lower than advertised. GSK had claimed that blackcurrants, Ribena’s main ingredient, had four times the Vitamin C of oranges but according to the girls’ science experiment the beverage had much lower levels.

The girls wrote a letter to the company reporting their findings but got no response. According to Jenny Suo, a telephone call to GSK was equally frustrating. “They didn’t even really answer our questions,” she told a reporter for Aukland’s Weekend Herald. “They just said it’s the blackcurrants that have it, then hung up.” Undeterred, the students contacted business watchdog groups, a television consumer affairs program, and, finally the New Zealand Commerce Commission.

On March 27, 2007, three years later, the company appeared in court in Aukland to plead guilty to 15 charges of making misleading claims about Ribena and breaching the Fair Trading Act. The Commerce Commission fined GSK US $168,000 The commission said that although blackcurrants did have more Vitamin C than oranges the same was not true of Ribena . The commission found that ready-to-drink Ribena had no detectable level of Vitamin C. Paula Rebstock, the commission chair, said thousands of New Zealanders had been duped by the company and described the company’s behavior as “a massive breach of trust with the New Zealand public.”

Before the New Zealand decision, GlaxoSmithKline, which has a worldwide turnover of more than $40 billion year, reported itself to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission. GSK agreed to the Australian Commission’s suggestion that it correct its labeling, cease making claims about Vitamin C, and publish an article in an industry magazine on the importance of accuracy in advertising.

At the Aukland court hearing, Anna Devathasan expressed concern and satisfaction about the outcome. “They’re a multi-billion dollar company,” she told the Sydney(Australia) Morning Herald, “so it’s a bit disappointing, but I think their reputation has been damaged enough to have an effect.”