Johnson & Johnson (J&J) has been a trusted American company for over 100 years. Founded by three brothers who wanted to improve sanitation practices in the United States and abroad, the company’s success was a representation of the American dream. However, what took decades to build was nearly destroyed overnight when lawsuits alleging the talcum in J&J’s baby powder caused ovarian cancer found the company guilty of negligence, conspiracy, fraud, and failure to warn. J&J’s baby powder is nearly as old as the company itself, but concerns over the products safety might just ruin consumer trust in the company.
The Early History of Baby Powder
Johnson & Johnson was incorporated in the United States in 1887 and originally sold ready-to-use surgical dressings. Focusing on antiseptic wound treatment, the company helped spread the practice of sterile surgery across the US and around the world.
By 1894, the company’s first aid kits and surgical dressings were a staple in doctors’ offices and emergency kits. J&J then decided to take on the safety of childbirth with a maternity kit for mothers and babies. Included in this kit and also sold separately was J&J’s baby powder.
J&J’s baby powder was sold in a small metal tin with the label “for toilet and nursery.” The baby powder was made of 99.8% talcum powder. The remaining 0.2% was a combination of oils designed to make the product smell fresh and enticing.
Initially, the only adults who used baby powder did so to help relieve irritated skin after adhesive J&J bandages were removed, and these were few and far between. The majority of use was for curing diaper rash, but by the early 1900s, J&J saw an opportunity for marketing baby powder to women.
A baby powder advertisement from 1913 includes the tagline, “Best For Baby, Best For You.” J&J continued to target women throughout the next few decades and by 1956 advertisements targeting women were in full force with the popular tagline, “Want to feel cool, smooth and dry? It’s as easy as taking powder from a baby.”
J&J marketed baby powder not only for general use to keep the body dry and smooth, but also specifically around the groin. Sprinkling baby powder on undergarments or around the groin was supposed to keep the area dry and help prevent foul vaginal odors.
Mounting Studies Link Talc to Ovarian Cancer
The first study that found a link between the talc in baby powder and ovarian cancer came in 1971 when British researchers found talc particles deeply embedded in ovarian tumors. Dozens of additional studies confirming the link between the talc in baby powder and ovarian cancer followed the initial discovery.
In response to the studies, the company hired its own independent consultant in the 1990s to investigate the connection between talc in its baby powder and ovarian cancer. Despite the consultant’s recommendation to stop defending the safety of talc and the mounting clinical evidence, J&J continued to market their baby powder as a safe product for women.
In 1992, an internal document entitled “Major Opportunities and Major Obstacles,” J&J both acknowledges the growing distrust of talcum powder and suggests targeting African Americans and Hispanics with advertising campaigns because these groups have a high prevalence of use. The document states “the brand can increase volume in 1993 by targeting these groups.”
The document goes on to list negative publicity from the health community on talc (inhalation, dust, negative doctor endorsement, cancer linkage)…” as one of the company’s largest obstacles.
This obstacle did not seem to slow the company down. Finally in 1999, the American Cancer Society released a statement recommending women not use baby powder containing talc near their groin because it might cause an increased risk of ovarian cancer. Because the Food and Drug Administration has no authority over cosmetic products like baby powder, the American Cancer Society’s statement regarding the safety of talc helped thrust the issue into the spotlight.
While J&J continued to successfully fight the link between the talc in its baby powder products and ovarian cancer, a study published in 2013 in Cancer Prevention Research found women who used talc-based baby powder in their genital areas have as much as a 30% higher risk of developing ovarian cancer than women who do not use talc-based baby powder.
Baby Powder Lawsuits
The first lawsuit regarding the safety of its baby powder came to trial in North Dakota, just several months after the study was published. The jury found J&J guilty of conspiracy, fraud and negligence in failing to warn consumers of the risks associated with its baby powder. This lawsuit helped pave the way for thousands of talcum powder lawsuits, two of which came to trial earlier this year.
In February 2016, a jury awarded the family of an Alabama woman who developed ovarian cancer after using J&J’s baby powder a $72 million award for damages. Just months later in May, another jury found the company guilty of negligence in failing to warn consumers and was ordered to pay the plaintiff $55 million in damages.
It was in these trials that internal documents showing J&J knew about the risks came to light. For many consumers who have used J&J products for years, this gross negligence was appalling. However, the company has repeatedly stated it still stands behind the safety of talc and its baby powder.
The Vice President of Research and Development at Johnson & Johnson Consumer Inc., Tara Glasgow, said in a recent statement, “As a scientist, and most importantly, as a parent, I can tell you the science is clear – cosmetic talc is, and has been, safe for use and that is the most important guiding principle for every product Johnson & Johnson Consumer Inc. offers to consumers and patients.”
The statement discredits all of the studies that indicate a link between the talc in baby powder and ovarian cancer, and instead boasts that not only is the talc in their products safe, it’s asbestos-free. While consumers may appreciate that baby powder doesn’t have the dangerous carcinogenic asbestos, it does little to console the families who have lost loved ones to ovarian cancer caused by the talcum in its baby powder.
The safety of J&J’s baby powder will be tested two more times this year when lawsuits against the company come to trial. With three juries agreeing that J&J should have warned consumers of the risks of talc in its baby powder, J&J will have a tough time proclaiming innocence in future lawsuits.