Johnson & Johnson, now facing thousands of lawsuits asserting ties between its famed baby powder and patients’ cancers, has campaigned for decades to keep from wide public view information that its talc was tainted with asbestos, a naturally occurring substance and an established cause of some cancers, news media reports say.
Reuters news service published its investigation of J&J’s long efforts to deny and downplay scientific evidence it had about asbestos in a product that has helped to create and define the company as one of the nation’s family friendly consumer product and pharmaceutical giants.
Tens of millions of Americans grew up, with grown-ups dusting them as infants with Johnson’s baby powder, now contributing just “$420 million to J&J’s $76.5 billion in revenue last year,” Reuters reported.
Still, the company considers talc a bedrock product, and Lisa Girion of the news service found that J&J long has battled federal regulators, chemical and mining experts, and now patients over its talc, how much asbestos (and the half dozen crystalline fibers that experts call this substance) was in it, and what levels — if any — might cause harm or be acceptable.
Plaintiffs in lawsuits filed across the country have persuaded judges and juries that lifetimes of their powdering themselves with J&J products, believed to be safe, harmless, and useful to prevent chafing and odor, led to cancers, including women’s genital cancers. The cases have shifted over time, with increasing prominence given to assertions that crystalline substances, especially asbestos, in the company’s products and not just talc can be blamed for cancers.
Reuters scrutinized masses of J&J internal documents to find that the company, dating to the 1950s, worried about the purity of talc used in its powders. Company officials argued with experts in the field for years about scientific methods to determine if asbestos was in J&J talc supplies and at what levels.
If government regulators from the federal Food and Drug Administration or the Occupational Safety and Health Administration or others raised concerns about possible health harms posed by talc or disputed substances it might contain, the firm fought back, finding its own experts and research to rebut claims.
As has occurred with Big Tobacco, Big Sugar, and professional sports leagues, J&J — Reuters found — sought to shape and sway scientific research, asserting it was offering expert guidance while assisting its own cause. This included hiring Italian researchers who also happened to control records and data on miners in their country and their health outcomes after extensive exposure to talc and supplies containing asbestos and other substances.
In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also the damages that they and their loved ones can suffer due to defective and dangerous products. It is unacceptable that a corporate giant like J&J hid damaging information about the potential safety of its product, ignoring warning signs of risks and options to alter its powders for consumer benefit (for example, by substituting corn starch for talc).
The company stock took a hit after the Reuters story appeared, and it was followed by a similar work by the New York Times, which also appears to have been digging for a while on this issue. Both organizations quote patients and their lawyers as angry about J&J’s failed disclosure, which the company has defended and argued that news media have misinterpreted thousands of documents.
But investors and others clearly see that the deny, deflect, and deride strategy won’t help the company in court, where its legal challenges may only increase. The cases, too, will only go to show yet again that the civil justice system provides an invaluable way to prod regulators and lawmakers to improve their oversight and protection of the public, even when a corporate behemoth resists.
While the baby powder lawsuits work their way through the system and judges and juries decide if multibillion-dollar judgements against J&J should stand, the cases also should provide the public with a stark reminder that consumer products, including those in the cosmetic and beauty sector, carry risks and these cannot and should not be ignored. Many of these items may fall into regulatory gray zones just beyond the reach of rigorous oversight that might better protect consumers.
Americans may fall further prey to the dubious conflation of cosmetic and beauty products with health and wellness, creating a counter factual goop of weird, dubious, and risky claims, some hyped in ridiculous fashion by celebrities. Be realistic and grown up, folks: Moderation matters in the quest for hygiene, good looks, and social acceptability. What’s ugly is sacrificing one’s health and wellness, exposing yourself to injury or illness, or throwing away time and money on bunk and junk.