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Australia’s competition watchdog is to take local units of GlaxoSmithKline and Novartis to court over alleged false or misleading marketing of pain relief gels.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission is taking action against GlaxoSmithKline Healthcare Australia and Novartis Consumer Health Australasia over what it claims are “false or misleading representations in the marketing of Voltaren Osteo Gel and Voltaren Emulgel pain relief products”.

The ACCC alleges that the companies marketed Osteo Gel as specifically formulated for treating osteoarthritis conditions and more effective than Emulgel, when the products had identical formulations. The watchdog found Osteo Gel was “sold at a significant price premium to Emulgel” in supermarkets and pharmacies.

ACCC Chairman Rod Sims said:

We allege GSK and Novartis engaged in a deliberate commercial strategy to differentiate the products in a way that was likely to mislead consumers. The alleged conduct is particularly concerning, given the significant penalties handed down by the court against the makers of Nurofen for what we consider to be similar conduct.

The move by the ACCC comes after British consumer goods group Reckitt Benckiser was fined a record A$6m by an Australian court in late 2016 for misleading consumers over the painkilling effects of Nurofen.

GSK acquired Novartis’ Voltaren products in 2016 and has since been responsible for marketing and selling the products.

The ACCC is seeking declarations, injunctions, pecuniary penalties, a publication order, a compliance programme and costs.

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