Johnson & Johnson (J&J) is an American multinational medical devices, pharmaceutical and consumer packaged goods manufacturing company founded in 1886. With worldwide sales of $70.1 billion in 2015, J&J is headquartered in New Brunswick, NJ, and includes some 250 subsidiary companies with operations in 60 countries and products sold in over 175 countries.
Among J&J’s well-known consumer products are Band-Aid bandages, Tylenol, Neutrogena skin and beauty products, Acuvue contact lenses, and Johnson’s baby products, including Johnson & Johnson Baby Powder, 70% of which is used by adults, according to the company.
Johnson’s Baby Powder grew out of a line of medicated plasters — sticky rubber strips loaded with mustard and other home remedies. When customers complained of skin irritation, J&J’s founding brothers sent packets of talc. Soon, mothers began applying the talc to infants’ diaper-chafed skin. The Johnsons took note. They sifted the talc into tin boxes and added a fragrance that would become one of the most recognizable in the world. In 1893, they began selling it as Johnson’s Baby Powder.
J&J has dominated the talc powder market for more than 100 years, its sales outpacing those of all competitors combined, according to Euromonitor International data. And while talc products contributed just $420 million to J&J’s $76.5 billion in revenue last year, Baby Powder is considered an essential facet of J&J’s carefully tended image as a caring company – a “sacred cow,” as one 2003 internal email put it. (Reuters)
Decades of solid science show that asbestos, a naturally-occurring silicate mineral, causes mesothelioma and is associated with ovarian and other cancers. Talc can sometimes be contaminated with asbestos due to the proximity of asbestos ore (usually tremolite) in underground talc deposits.
The World Health Organization (WHO) and other authorities recognize no safe level of exposure to asbestos. WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies talc that contains asbestos as “carcinogenic to humans.” While most people exposed never develop cancer, for some, even small amounts of asbestos are enough to trigger the disease years later. Just how small hasn’t been established.
There are many lawsuits against Johnson & Johnson claiming that its talcum powder products, like Baby Powder and Shower to Shower, gave users cancer. Most of the talc cases have been brought by women with ovarian cancer who say they regularly used J&J talc products as a perineal antiperspirant and deodorant. As examples:
- In February 2016, J&J was ordered to pay $72 million in damages to the family of 62-year-old Jacqueline Fox, who died of ovarian cancer in 2015.
- By March 2017, over 1,000 U.S. women had sued J&J for covering up the possible cancer risk of its Baby Powder product.
- In August 2017, a California jury ordered J&J to pay $417 million to a woman who claimed she developed ovarian cancer after using the company’s talc-based products like Johnson’s Baby Powder for feminine hygiene.
- In July 2018, a St. Louis jury awarded nearly US$4.7 billion in damages to 22 women and their families after they claimed asbestos in J&J talcum powder caused their ovarian cancer.
- By December 2018, some 11,700 people have sued J&J over cancers allegedly caused by its baby powder.
Lisa Girion reports for Reuters, Dec. 14, 2018, that internal J&J documents examined by Reuters show that the company’s powder was sometimes tainted with carcinogenic asbestos and that J&J concealed that information from government regulators and the public.
And yet, we are constantly being told there are no conspiracies and that “conspiracy theorists” are loony.
After avoiding to hand over talc test results and other internal company records for decades, J&J finally was compelled to share thousands of pages of company memos, internal reports and other confidential documents with lawyers for some of the 11,700 plaintiffs suing the company, including thousands of women with ovarian cancer.
A Reuters examination of many of those documents, as well as deposition and trial testimony, shows that:
- From at least 1971 to the early 2000s, J&J’s raw talc and finished powders sometimes tested positive for small amounts of asbestos, and that company executives, mine managers, scientists, doctors and lawyers fretted over the problem and how to address it while failing to disclose it to regulators or the public.
- J&J successfully influenced U.S. regulators’ plans to limit asbestos in cosmetic talc products and scientific research on the health effects of talc.
- Many of the documents were shielded from public view by court orders that allowed J&J to turn over thousands of documents it designated as confidential.
- The earliest mentions of tainted J&J talc are in 1957 and 1958 reports by a consulting lab, describing contaminants in talc from J&J’s Italian supplier as fibrous and “acicular” needle-like tremolite. Tremolite is one of the six minerals that in their naturally occurring fibrous form are classified as asbestos.
- From 1957 to the early 2000s, reports by J&J’s scientists, supplier and outside labs yielded similar findings, describing contaminants in J&J talc and finished powder products as asbestos or “fiberform” and “rods” — terms that typically apply to asbestos.
- In 1971, New York City’s environmental protection chief, Jerome Kretchmer, informed the Nixon administration and called a press conference to announce that two unidentified brands of cosmetic talc appeared to contain asbestos. The FDA opened an inquiry. J&J issued a statement: “Our fifty years of research knowledge in this area indicates that there is no asbestos contained in the powder manufactured by Johnson & Johnson.”
- In 1976, J&J assured the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that no asbestos was “detected in any sample” of talc produced between December 1972 and October 1973 when, in fact, at least three tests by three different labs from 1972 to 1975 had found asbestos in its talc – in one case at levels reported as “rather high.”
J&J, through its outside litigation counsel Peter Bicks, rejected Reuters’ findings as “false and misleading.” Bicks wrote in email: “The scientific consensus is that the talc used in talc-based body powders does not cause cancer, regardless of what is in that talc. This is true even if – and it does not – Johnson & Johnson’s cosmetic talc had ever contained minute, undetectable amounts of asbestos.”
In 1980, J&J began offering a cornstarch version of Baby Powder – to expand its customer base to people who prefer cornstarch, the company says.
Since 2003, talc in Baby Powder sold in the United States has come from China through supplier Imerys Talc America, a unit of Paris-based Imerys SA and a co-defendant in most of the talc litigation. Imerys and J&J said the Chinese talc is safe. An Imerys spokesman said the company’s tests “consistently show no asbestos. Talc’s safe use has been confirmed by multiple regulatory and scientific bodies.”
In 2009, the FDA, responding to growing public concern about talc, commissioned tests on 34 samples, including a bottle of J&J Baby Powder and samples of Imerys talc from China. No asbestos was detected.
In August 2018, J&J said that it removed several chemicals from baby powder products and re-engineered them to make consumers more confident that products were safer for children.
The mounting controversy surrounding J&J talc hasn’t shaken investors. J&J’s share price is up about 6% so far this year. Talc cases make up fewer than 10% of all personal injury lawsuits pending against J&J, based on the company’s Aug. 2 quarterly report, in which the company said it believed it had “strong grounds on appeal.”
J&J Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Alex Gorsky has pledged to fight on, telling analysts in July: “We remain confident that our products do not contain asbestos.” Gorsky’s comment, echoed in countless J&J statements, misses a crucial point. Asbestos, like many environmental carcinogens, has a long latency period. Diagnosis usually comes years after initial exposure – 20 years or longer for mesothelioma. J&J talc products today may be safe, but the talc at issue in thousands of lawsuits was sold and used over the past 60 years.
On Wednesday, December 19, Johnson & Johnson failed to persuade Missouri trial Judge Rex Burlison to set aside a verdict awarding a record $4.69 billion in punitive and compensatory damages to 22 women who blamed their ovarian cancer on asbestos in the company’s Baby Powder and other talc products.
J&J shares were off about 1% at $128.93 in afternoon trading. The company in a statement said J&J would appeal. (Reuters)
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