NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—Advocates are calling on consumer health products giant Johnson & Johnson (J&J) to halt sales of its baby powder products, which have been alleged to cause two different kinds of cancer.
In May, the New Brunswick-based corporation said it “will wind down the commercialization of talc-based Baby Powder in the US and Canada in the coming months,” adding that “existing inventory will continue to be sold through retailers until it runs out.”
But that’s not enough, says “Black Women for Wellness,” one of the many advocacy groups pushing for J&J to stop selling its baby powder worldwide.
In July, the group formally requested that the company protect women around the world from unsafe chemical exposures, only to receive what it views as a “patronizing and dismissive response” from the consumer giant.
“Transnational corporations like J&J have to have a moral and ethical standard that reaches across borders,” Jan Robinson Flint, the Executive Director and founder of Black Women for Wellness told New Brunswick Today.
“[J&J] can’t do one thing in North America and another thing in South America, or one thing in Europe while doing another thing in Africa. Because it becomes unfair to women who can least afford and have less access to the healthcare services that they will need as a consequence of using toxic chemicals or asbestos that is in their baby powder.”
Committed to the health and well-being of Black women and girls through health education, empowerment, and advocacy, the California-based non-profit started as a group concerned women advocating for the health and well-being of Black babies.
Through advocacy and education, Black Women for Wellness is helping make others aware of another story J&J seems to be desperately playing down.
The organization took the lead among the more than 200 groups that signed on to the latest letter to Johnson & Johnson, questioning the corporation’s commitment to women of color across the world.
The coalition members include educational institutions such as Emory University and activist groups such as Greenpeace.
Johnson & Johnson already faces more than 2,400 “Talc-Powder” and “Asbestos” lawsuits in New Jersey, with 1,300 of them waiting to be heard in New Brunswick at the Middlesex County Courthouse, where asbestos trials will resume in March 2021.
For the past six years, Middlesex County has been the venue for the asbestos cases, which claim the talc caused mesothelioma, a type of lung cancer.
There are also 1,122 claims the same product caused ovarian cancer here in New Jersey, with those cases pending in Atlantic County.
But those are just some of the 18,000 talc-related lawsuits J&J faces nationwide, according to their own records.
With billion dollar verdicts and judicial rulings taking a very public toll on on the pharma giant, J&J reports as many as 90,000 product liability claims remain unresolved.
The amount of cases alleging links between J&J’s baby powder and cancer has increased by about 15% since December, according to a regulatory filing for the company’s 2019 fiscal year.
Other litigation faced by J&J and its business units cited in the annual filing include:
- 29,000 related to Xarelto
- 17,600 related to pelvic meshes
- 11,900 related to Risperdal
- 10,300 related to Pinnacle Acetabular Cup System
- 3,300 related to Ethicon Physiomesh Flexible Composite Mesh
- 1,100 related to the DePuy ASR XL Acetabular System and DePuy ASR Hip Resurfacing System
- 400 related to Invokana
In 2013, J&J and its subsidiaries paid more than $2.2 billion to resolve criminal and civil liability arising from allegations relating to the prescription drugs Risperdal, Invega and Natrecor, including improperly promoting the drugs and paying kickbacks to physicians and to the nation’s largest long-term care pharmacy provider.
That settlement is one of the largest healthcare fraud settlements in U.S. history, according to the United States Department of Justice.
Asbestos is a known human carcinogen, said Ami Zota, Associate Professor of Environmental and Occupational Health at George Washington University, adding that no amount of this toxic substance is acceptable in consumer products.
While J&J contends its talc-based powder is safe, asbestos free, and does not cause cancer, they recalled some of it in October 2019 after a Food and Drug Administration test revealed “the presence of sub-trace levels of chrysotile asbestos contamination” in a single bottle of powder sold online.
Since it is nearly impossible to ensure that all talc-based powder products are free of asbestos, Zota said these products must be removed from store shelves across the globe.
“Given the potential links between talc-based powders and ovarian cancer, halting sales of talc-based powders will benefit women’s health — especially for women of color, who are disproportionately dying from ovarian cancer,” Zota said.
M. Isabelle Chaudry, a senior policy manager at National Women’s Health Network said that, to continue selling the powder abroad is an assault on historically marginalized communities in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
The coalition repeatedly cited a June statement supporting racial equality, made at the height of the U.S. Black Lives Matter protests by J&J CEO Alex Gorsky, who received $25 million in total pay last year.
“If ‘racism in any form is unacceptable’ and ‘Black lives matter,’ as its CEO Alex Gorsky states, then J&J must address its own racist practices,” and discontinue producing and selling this product globally, said Chaudry.
“Solidarity with racial justice movements is more than media statements, it is action in the boardroom,” Robinson Flint said. “Solidarity is stopping the manufacture and sale of toxic products at home and abroad. Black Women for Wellness is simply asking Johnson and Johnson to walk their talk.”
They want the company to stop selling the product worldwide, recall the existing inventory here in North America, and dispose of it safely.
However, J&J wants to keep selling the talc-based baby powder overseas, where it says demand is higher.
“Decades of independent scientific studies by medical experts around the world support the safety of Johnson’s Baby Powder,” J&J said in a statement. “We continue to offer this product in many other regions around the world where there is higher consumer demand.”
In the 1990’s, as concerns grew over J&J’s baby powder and its possible links to cancer, the company aggressively marketed the product to women of color, distributing free samples in Black churches and advertising on Spanish-language radio, according to Black Women for Wellness.
An internal J&J memo from 1992 acknowledged “negative publicity from the health community on talc (inhalation, dust, negative doctor endorsement, cancer linkage) continues” but recommended increased targeted marketing to Black and Hispanic women, anyway.
Robinson Flint said her group was “doubling down” on efforts to call J&J out, citing the corporation’s response to the coalition’s initial July 8 letter calling for the company to retire the product worldwide.
“I was absolutely amazed at their patronizing tone and message,” she said.
“J&J sent us a message that they are not selling product in North America [but] only because of so many lawsuits. Then they said that we stand in solidarity with Black Lives Matter. Do you really? Or was that just the PR Moment?”
Monica Unseld, the founder of Data for Justice, said J&J should commit to health equity beyond public statements and not target Black and Brown communities with toxic products.
“We are calling on [J&J] to actively commit to pursuing health equity in ALL communities, not just in select markets,” Unseld said.
Janet Nudelman, director of Breast Cancer Prevention Partner’s Campaign for Safe Cosmetics commended J&J for halting the sale of Baby Powder in North America, but would have liked the cosmetic giant to stop all international marketing as well, calling it “reckless.”
“Women of color across the globe” will be “disproportionately impacted,” Nudelman said.
J&J’s decision to pull the powder out of the U.S. and Canadian markets came nearly two years after a record $4.7 billion jury verdict against the company over claims that its talcum powder causes ovarian cancer.
This June, a Missouri appeals court reduced the jury’s award to $2.1 billion, but crucially declined to wipe out punitive damages.
In the case, fought over whether baby powder was the cause of the ovarian cancer in the women who sued, the appeals court sided with the 22 plaintiffs rather than J&J subsidiary.
Evidence at trial indicated J&J’s conduct was “outrageous because of evil motive or reckless indifference,” according to the appeals court.
In a statement following the initial verdict, J&J said the verdict “was the product of a fundamentally unfair process that allowed plaintiffs to present a group of 22 women, most of whom had no connection to Missouri, in a single case all alleging that they developed ovarian cancer.”
“We continue to believe this was a fundamentally flawed trial, grounded in a faulty presentation of the facts,” said Kim Montagnino, a J&J spokeswoman. “We remain confident that our talc is safe, asbestos free and does not cause cancer.”
That ruling was far from the only one to cost J&J big bucks in recent years.
In October 2019, lead plaintiff attorney Jason Itkin, won an $8 billion punitive damages award in a case over Risperdal, the antipsychotic drug the corporation illegally pushed for use on children, said there’s been a shift in J&J’s ethics, business conduct, and its attitudes toward safety.
The jury’s award in that case was later reduced to $6.8 million by the trial judge.
“Johnson & Johnson is a repeat offender of some of the most basic things that we expect from companies or people,” said Itkin citing years of Risperdal litigation.
“They knowingly chose to hurt children in order to increase their profits. Instead of accepting responsibility for what they’ve done and trying to make it right, the company continues to want to litigate. They are a company that shows no remorse [and] no empathy for the victims, and so we look forward to being able to try more cases… and expose J&J one case at a time.”
Dave is an award-winning business reporter who has authored over 200 articles for New Brunswick Today.