Bristol-Myers Co. sued CBS Inc. today for $25 million charging that a local CBS-owned television station libeled the pharmaceutical house and two of its leading products, Bufferin and Excedrin.
Bristol-Myers said that WCBS reporter John Stossel showed a "reckless disregard for the truth" in a news report last Wednesday when he said that the Federal Trade Commission labeled as "hogwash" the company's advertising for the two painkillers.
In fact, the FTC had taken no position on the advertising when Stossel's report appeared, according to Bristol-Myers' vice president for legal affairs, Richard Edmondson.
In 1973, however, the staff of the FTC filed a complaint alleging that advertising claims for pain-killing products of three major drug companies -- Bristol-Myers, Sterling Drug (which makes Bayer Aspirin) and American Home Products (which makes Anacin) -- weren't supportable.
Friday -- two days after Stossel's report was aired -- an administrative law judge at the FTC ruled that Bristol-Myers' claims of superiority for Bufferin and Excedrin hadn't been proven scientifically, and ordered the company to say so in future advertisements.
No such disclaimers will be forthcoming soon. The company has appealed the law judge's decision to the five-member FTC, and it argues that it has studies that show the superiority of Excedrin and Bufferin.
Those studies were criticized in Stossel's report by a Columbia University professor of pharmacology, Norman Kahn, who said they were performed at second-rate hospitals.
Bristol-Myers said they were performed at first-rate hospitals such as New York's Bellevue, Philadelphia General and the University of Iowa. It named Kahn and Stossel in the suit, too.
Neil Derrough, general manager of WCBS, said the company doesn't comment on "pending litigation" but on the WCBS newcast tonight quoted a statement from Derrough saying that "we believe our report of a complaint by the FTC and the results of an independent study" by Kahn "did not violate the legal rights" of Bristol-Myers.
Edmondson said Bristol-Myers is upset because the newcast reported that the Federal Trade Commission had discredited the company's advertising when Stossel was referring to a complaint from the FTC's staff that hasn't been acted on by the full FTC.
Last year an FTC administrative law judge ruled against American Home Products' advertising, and that case is still on appeal to the full FTC.