A container of Johnson & Johnson baby powder in New York on Aug. 14, 2018. Johnson & Johnson is discontinuing North American sales of baby powder made with talc, a product at the center of nearly 20,000 lawsuits filed by cancer patients
Image: Jens Mortensen/The New York Times
Johnson & Johnson is discontinuing North American sales of its talc-based baby powder, a product that once defined the company’s wholesome image and that it has defended for decades even as it faced thousands of lawsuits filed by patients who say it caused cancer.
The decision to wind down sales of the product is a huge concession for Johnson & Johnson, which has for more than a century promoted the powder as pure and gentle enough for babies.
The company said Tuesday that it would allow existing bottles to be sold by retailers until they ran out. Baby powder made with cornstarch will remain available, and the company will continue to sell talc-based baby powder in other parts of the world.
Johnson & Johnson has often said that faulty testing, shoddy science and ill-equipped researchers are to blame for findings that its powder was contaminated with asbestos. But in recent years, thousands of people — mostly women with ovarian cancer — have said that the company did not warn them of potential risks that the company was discussing internally.
Even as it announced the withdrawal of its baby powder, the company said that it “will continue to vigorously defend the product” in court. But Johnson & Johnson acknowledged that demand for the talc-based version had slumped as consumer habits changed and concerns about the product spread.
For decades, baby powder’s main ingredient was talc, a mineral known for its softness. Sold in an iconic white bottle, its fragrance is said to be one of the most recognizable in the world.
It was only in 1980, after consumer advocates raised concerns that talc contained traces of asbestos, a known carcinogen, that the company developed a cornstarch alternative.
Krystal Kim, a Philadelphia woman who has survived two bouts of ovarian cancer that she blames on her lifelong use of the powder, said the decision to remove the product was a victory. Kim was one of a group of women who won a lawsuit against Johnson & Johnson in 2018.
“It means no more little girls are going to go through what we went through,” said Kim, who started using baby powder when she was 10 years old. “This stops now. That monster is off the shelves.”
Early lawsuits against Johnson & Johnson claimed the talc itself caused ovarian cancer, though the scientific evidence on that was never conclusive. Plaintiffs’ lawyers later shifted their focus, arguing that traces of asbestos — an indisputable and much-feared carcinogen — were present in talc and capable of causing cancer even in microscopic amounts.
Asbestos contamination can occur when talc is mined because both minerals can be intermingled underground, and internal memos and reports revealed during litigation showed 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 including Kim in 2018. But the company has prevailed in other cases and is appealing nearly all the cases it has lost.
Johnson & Johnson’s talc supplier, Imerys Talc America, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last year.
In October, Johnson & Johnson recalled 33,000 bottles of baby powder after the Food and Drug Administration said it discovered evidence of chrysotile asbestos in a bottle purchased from an online retailer. Soon after, the company said that multiple tests of the same bottle came up clean.
Nathan A. Schachtman, a lawyer who defends product liability cases and spent decades handling asbestos-related claims, said that companies often agreed to settle lawsuits or discontinue products that they believed were safe in an attempt to soothe shareholders and win back public confidence — to “buy peace,” he said.
“At some point, the shareholders don’t care whether the science is on your side,” said Schachtman, who said he was not involved in the Johnson & Johnson talc cases. “Companies have to make very practical and hard decisions about withdrawing products that they don’t think are bad products or dropping cases because they know they can’t win them all, and it’s expensive to defend them.”
On Tuesday, Johnson & Johnson said that baby powder made up half a percent of its total consumer health business in the United States and that demand for the talc-based version had slumped. The decision to discontinue the product stemmed from a re-evaluation of its product portfolio, the company said.
Mark Lanier, a lawyer who represents thousands of cancer survivors and their families who are suing Johnson & Johnson, said the company had made “the right move.”
“They can give all the reasons they want — I’m just thankful the stuff is off the market. I do believe this will save untold misery and lives,” Lanier said.
Though Johnson’s Baby Powder has long been advertised for infants and is stocked on the baby aisle along with diapers and baby shampoo, adult women have been the main purchasers in recent decades, using it on their perineum and to prevent chafing between the legs.
Thousands of women who developed ovarian cancer after long-term use of the product blamed the powder and sued the company, while a smaller number sued after developing mesothelioma, a rare and particularly vicious cancer that develops in the linings of the lungs and abdomen and is considered a signature disease of asbestos.
And groups that have advocated for the removal of other talc-based cosmetics from the market seized on Johnson & Johnson’s decision to call for more companies to do the same.
In a statement, the Environmental Working Group advocacy organization urged other cosmetic companies to stop using talc in loose powders. The group said that it commissioned tests that last week found asbestos in two eye shadow palettes made with talc, marketed to children and sold on Amazon.
Amazon did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The FDA issued several alerts last year warning that asbestos had been discovered in several talc cosmetics products, including eye shadow sold at Claire’s, a retailer focused on teenagers.
Linda Reinstein, whose husband died of asbestos-induced mesothelioma and who now heads the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, called the company’s move a public health victory but said several chemical companies continued to use asbestos in manufacturing and had blocked an outright ban on it. “We can’t wait for them to follow Johnson & Johnson,” she said.
©2019 New York Times News Service