The pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson announced this Thursday that in 2023 it would suspend the sale of its baby talcum powder worldwide, two years after doing so in the US and Canada, hounded by thousands of complaints about the safety of the product.
In a brief note, the company said it had made a “business decision” to substitute cornstarch for talc in this children’s product after receiving 38,000 lawsuits linking its long-term use to cancer. However, it continued to deny letting that be the cause.
Johnson & Johnson did not acknowledge the product’s dangers and argued that it was about ‘changing consumer habits fueled by disinformation.’
The company stopped the sales of baby talc in the US and Canada in 2020. The concern had said that it would curtail supplies in the coming months, but retailers will continue to sell off stocks. Demand for powder in the United States has been falling for the past few years.
In a statement, the company had said that it would remain firmly convinced of the safety of Johnson’s Baby Powder based on talc. It said it relied on decades of independent scientific research by medical experts worldwide to confirm its product’s safety.
The cancer issue
Consumers of Johnson’s Baby claimed that the baby powder is contaminated with asbestos, which the WHO has recognized as a cancer-causing carcinogen. Talc is a mineral from the silicate class, which is often found near asbestos deposits. The company denies the presence of asbestos in its talc and insists that the baby powder it produces does not cause cancer.
In a Missouri trial, a prosecutor argued that Johnson & Johnson used improper testing methods for its products.
The British charity Ovacome, which helps people with ovarian cancer, claims that the use of talc in the genital area can lead to cancer has long been known but has not been confirmed.
In 2020, The Republic of Congo suspended importing J&J powder. After several weeks of consultation with civil society, the Ministry of Commerce decided to suspend the import and marketing of this powder in the country. Authorities have suspended Johnson’s baby powder “pending the results of sponsored lab tests,” they said in a statement.
The government’s decision was the first victory for Action for the Environment and Development (AED) at the initiative of an information meeting for civil society on 13 November in Brazzaville. For the president of the AED, Dr Eugène Loubaki, the toxicity of this product “is beyond doubt” because of the proven presence of talc contaminated with asbestos, a kind of highly toxic magnesium or calcium with refractory properties.
In 2012, a US resident filed a lawsuit against the company when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and liver metastases. In 2017, the court ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay her $110 million.
Johnson & Johnson also claims that several independent studies have concluded that talc is harmless. J&J also called the jury’s decision the result of a deeply unfair process.
Between 2009 and 2010, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) tested talc from various companies, including J&J baby powder, and found no traces of asbestos.
In 2017, a California court ordered the company to pay $417 million in damages to a lady who claimed she developed cancer after using J&J products, including talc. However, this verdict was overturned on appeal.
Jury verdicts on corporate financial penalties are often overturned by the presiding judge or on appeal. Johnson & Johnson has been successful in overturning jury decisions several times.
In 2018, a US court ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay $4.7 billion for powder causing ovarian cancer in 22 women. Jurors in Missouri ruled that the company should pay these women $550 million in damages and another $4.1 billion in punishment.
The trial lasted six weeks. In their testimony, the women and their relatives claimed that they developed cancer after decades of using baby powder and other talc-based products for hygiene purposes.
Their lawyers argued that since the 1970s, the company was aware that asbestos dust was present in talc but did not warn consumers about the possible danger.
The company has challenged this decision.
In 2019, J&J was involved in another major reputational scandal and was ordered to pay $572 million. Oklahoma authorities said the company contributed to the opioid crisis that has killed more than 6,000 people in the state.
The state asked to recover $17.2 billion from the pharmaceutical division of the company Janssen Pharmaceuticals for the distribution of painkillers in Oklahoma that led to the deaths. In addition, the situation was exacerbated by an aggressive marketing campaign that “disturbed the public peace and misled the people of the state.” According to the authorities, Johnson & Johnson “exaggerated the effectiveness of drugs for the treatment of chronic pain and downplayed the risk of addiction.”
However, Johnson & Johnson disagreed with the allegations. “Neither the facts nor the law supports these findings,” Michael Ullmann, executive vice president of Johnson & Johnson, said in an announcement that the court’s decision would be appealed.