Buyer beware: J&J pulls its baby powder, as officials warn about vapeware

blaze2vape-300x169Consumers have gotten stark reminders of the safety risks of two different kinds of products, one a household classic and the other a bootlegger’s nightmare. Caveat emptor about baby powder and street-purchased vaping devices.

As for Johnson and Johnson’s family familiar talc, the company may have timed well its decision to yank it from shelves in North America as the public focuses its attention on other and major health concerns, experts said. As Reuters reported:

“Christie Nordhielm, a professor of marketing at Georgetown, said it appears J&J made its decision to withdraw from the market while consumers were preoccupied with the pandemic. ‘It’s a nice time to quietly do it,’ she said, adding ‘it will minimize the reputational hit.’”

jjbabypowder-150x150J&J is grappling with more than 19,000 lawsuits with women and their survivors asserting that the sustained use of talc for daily personal hygiene may be linked to cancers affecting female reproductive organs. J&J has denied the claims but has seen relentless disclosures of how it knew about and tried to keep from the public a big body of information about talc’s tainting with cancer-causing asbestos. As the New York Times reported:

“Asbestos contamination can occur when talc is mined, because both minerals can be intermingled underground, and internal memos and reports unearthed during litigation revealed that the company had been concerned for at least 50 years about the possibility of traces of asbestos in its talc. Asbestos was first linked to ovarian cancer in 1958. The revelation of these company documents also prompted inquiries by the Justice Department and Securities and Exchange Commission, as well as congressional committees and authorities in Mississippi and New Mexico. As of late March, Johnson & Johnson faced 19,400 lawsuits related to talc body powders, many of them involving complicated science. A federal judge ruled in April that plaintiffs’ scientific experts could testify, with some exceptions, a blow to Johnson & Johnson, which had been pushing to exclude the testimony in hopes of shutting down thousands of cases. The legal record has been mixed so far. Several juries have decided against Johnson & Johnson, in one case awarding $4.7 billion to 22 women … in 2018. But the company has prevailed in other cases and is appealing nearly all of the cases it has lost.”

J&J has sold its baby powder since 1894, though it blamed the adverse publicity about talc for declining consumer interest and purchases of the product, which now accounts for .05% of its U.S. consumer health business, Reuters news service reported.

The Wall Street Journal underscored that the company, in withdrawing its product from sales, is not making any concessions about lawsuits against it over its baby powder.

Indeed, J&J, which built its brand for decades as a family friendly health company, has become a ferocious courtroom combatant, battling at one point on three, big, and expensive fronts: lawsuits involving its medical devices (a hip implant), prescription drugs (opioids), and consumer products (baby powder). As the Wall Street Journal noted of the talc cases and the company’s antagonizing of its customers:

“Yet Johnson’s is a popular brand familiar to generations of people. Because the product contains the Johnson name, the negative publicity about the safety concerns have dented the company’s reputation, surveys have found. And J&J shares have suffered over concerns that its ultimate liability will be hefty, even though some of its losses have been reduced or reversed on appeal.”

In Los Angeles, meantime, fire and public safety authorities have expressed their anger and concern about a harrowing series of explosions and blazes that engulfed several businesses in the city’s core. A dozen firefighters were injured in the incident, including several who were severely burned. Hundreds of firefighters battled the downtown blazes for hours before bringing them under control.

Even before the towering clouds of smoke and the fires had subsided, authorities were investigating — including on a criminal basis — whether vaping bootleggers were to blame. That’s because the incident occurred in a sketchy part of the downtown business district, not far from the government core and the historic Little Tokyo and Skid Row neighborhoods, where small stores sell cheap cigarettes and marijuana paraphernalia.

Authorities fear that vendors in the area, and potentially elsewhere in the city, are stocking goods and chemicals that bootleggers use, both to prep street vaping devices and marijuana-based products used in them. The speed and intensity of the downtown fires, combined with the explosions, have led investigators to questions as to whether one of the stores was packed with commercial-sized tanks of butane and other volatile and highly flammable substances. They are used to concentrate marijuana into a highly potent form, nicknamed butane honey oil.

Los Angeles fire fighters, fire inspectors, as well as police and code inspectors and federal authorities, including from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, pledged to fan out across the sprawling metropolis to crack down on street vaping vendors who stockpile dangerous chemicals.

The downtown fire, officials said, nearly turned deadly as firefighters passing by stopped to investigate smoke coming from a building, empty due to the weekend. The building did not carry legally required signs warning authorities of hazardous substances inside. Crews were inside the building and on the roof when the explosions started, and the fire blew up and out of control. Cell phone videos, taken by residents living nearby, show firefighters racing to safety through heavy smokes, booms, and with their safety gear ablaze. A fire truck was abandoned, and news reports showed how the vehicle had melted due to the blazes’ intense heat.

In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also the damages that can be inflicted on them and their loved ones by defective and dangerous products.

When J&J pulled its baby powder, company officials offered sour grapes why, blaming lawsuits against it and “misinformation” for causing interest and sales in its famed product to dwindle. Well, if there’s so little in the line for the company anymore, why not follow on and settle the lawsuits involving talc, J&J? A company with revenues exceeding $82 billion in 2019 alone surely could benefit from the public relations boost of listening to and helping aggrieved customers, without a long, acrimonious, and costly court fight, right?

As for vapers and street goods, the big question is: Why? Did they fail to get the warning when dozens of users died and thousands suffered lung injuries so severe as to require hospitalization? The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the evidence pointed convincingly to the harms caused by chemical-tainted products, particularly those sold by street bootleggers. Authorities should find bootleggers who put the public’s safety at extreme risk and pursue maximum legal penalties against them.

Photo credit: Los Angeles Fire Department
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