North American sales of Johnson & Johnson’s talc baby powder is being discontinued. The product helped to define and defend J&J’s image as a wholesome company despite thousands of lawsuits that were filed by patients who claimed that it caused cancer. Johnson & Johnson conceded, and made the final decision to stop carrying these products, which have been promoted for more than a century as being gentle and pure for babies.

On Tuesday, the company announced on its website that existing bottles of the product would continue to be sold until they run out. Cornstarch-based baby powder will still be sold, and talc-based baby powder will be sold in other parts of the world.

Johnson & Johnson continues to face thousands of lawsuits from survivors and consumers who claim that asbestos, a known carcinogen that is believed to cause cancer and is present in their talc-based baby powder, was responsible for the untimely illnesses of themselves or their loved ones. A majority of the cases are pending litigation in New Jersey, where a U.S. district judge in the state is handling them.

Johnson & Johnson’s Baby Powder Faces Decreased Demand

The COVID-19 crisis ceased the shipping of J&J’s talc baby powder after limits were set regarding manufacturing and shopping. Sales of the product in North America will start winding down immediately, according to a statement from the company on Tuesday.

The statement also says that misinformation regarding the safety of the baby powder as well as significant litigation advertising has fueled changes in people’s spending habits, which, in turn, has decreased demand for the product.

The product, which has been on the market since 1894, accounts for around 0.5% of its consumer health business in the U.S., but still remains a symbol of Johnson & Johnson’s family-friendly image. A 1999 internal marketing presentation considered the company’s baby products division as their trusted, number one asset, with baby powder at the core. 

Christie Nordhielm is a professor of marketing at Georgetown. She believes that the decision to withdraw talc baby powder from the market was due to consumers becoming more preoccupied with the COVID-19 pandemic. In other words, they intended to quietly pull the product off of store shelves so that any damage to their reputation would be kept at a minimum. Following the disclosure, shares of Johnson & Johnson’s stock remained unchanged during after-hours trading.

The company has said that ill-equipped researchers, careless science, and faulty testing were to blame for findings that showed that their baby powder was contaminated with asbestos. However, more recently, thousands of people, primarily women who suffered from ovarian cancer, said that Johnson & Johnson did not warn them of the possible risks associated with the use of their baby powder – risks the company had discussed internally among staff and other colleagues.

Even after the announcement was made regarding the withdrawal of their talc-based baby powder products, Johnson & Johnson said that the allegations regarding its safety were unfounded and they will continue to strongly defend the product in court. Most of the verdicts against the company that went through the appeals process have since been overturned, according to Johnson & Johnson.

Health Risks of Talc

Talc, a mineral long-known for its softness, has been used in Johnson & Johnson’s baby powder for decades. The product has always been sold in its iconic white bottle, and its fragrance was recognized all over the world.

However, according to the company’s internal records, including trial testimony and other physical evidence from 1971 to the early 2000s, their raw talc and finished powders tested positive for small amounts of asbestos on occasion. Some of the earliest cases against Johnson & Johnson claimed that the talc caused ovarian cancer, even though scientific evidence regarding this claim was still inconclusive. Plaintiffs’ lawyers shifted their focus and started arguing that small amounts of asbestos, a much-feared and indisputable carcinogen, were present in talc and could potentially cause cancer even when used in small amounts.

Johnson & Johnson has also been involved in a federal criminal investigation. The investigation attempted to uncover how much the company knew about the safety of its talc products. Forty-one states were involved in the investigation into its sales of baby powder, according to a disclosure in April, and a separate investigation by a Congressional subcommittee was conducted regarding the health risks of asbestos in consumer products that contained talc.

Johnson & Johnson, in response to evidence of asbestos contamination presented in court, on Capitol Hill, and in media reports, has maintained that their talc-based products do not cause cancer and are safe to use.

J&J Talc Lawsuits Continue

Johnson and Johnson’s legal battles are far from over, according to law experts. Loyola Law Professor Adam Zimmerman says that litigation against the company won’t end just because they took their products off store shelves. Asbestos can cause damage years after a person has been exposed to it. Cases regarding asbestos products that were removed from stores years ago are still being argued in court to this day, according to Zimmerman.

In late March, over 19,400 lawsuits related to talc-based baby powders have been filed against Johnson & Johnson. A vast majority of the cases involve complicated science. In April, a federal judge ruled that plaintiffs’ scientific experts would be allowed to testify, with some exceptions involved. This was a crushing blow to the company, which had been trying to exclude additional testimony in order to shut down thousands of cases.

Legal records have been mixed. Some juries ruled against Johnson & Johnson including one case where $4.7 billion was awarded to 22 women in 2018, including Ms. Kim. In other cases, the company was triumphant and is currently appealing most of the cases they have lost.

Additional Lawsuits Against Johnson & Johnson

Aside from the controversy surrounding their baby powder products, Johnson & Johnson, once known as one of the most trusted brands in the U.S. and respected by millions of consumers, has recently faced a series of other reputational and legal challenges.

The company, along with other drugmakers, has been named as a defendant in over 2,900 lawsuits alleging that they promoted addictive opioids improperly. A judge in Oklahoma rendered one of the first verdicts in that litigation and ordered them to pay $572.1 million to the state for deceivingly marketing addictive painkillers, which, in turn, fueled an opioid epidemic. Johnson & Johnson has denied these allegations and is appealing the Oklahoma judge’s ruling.     

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