New York Times, May 19, 2020Updated 5:44 p.m. ET
The company has faced thousands of lawsuits from cancer patients who claim that its talc was contaminated with asbestos, a known carcinogen, and that the company knew of the risks.
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.
The company said on Tuesday that it would wind down sales over the next few months, allowing existing bottles to be sold by retailers until they run out. Baby powder made with cornstarch will remain available, and talc-based baby powder will continue to be sold in other parts of the world.
The decision stemmed from a move in March to stop shipping hundreds of items to the United States and Canada so that it can prioritize products with greater demand and allow safer conditions in manufacturing and distribution facilities, the company said.
But it is a huge concession for the company, which has for over a century promoted its baby powder as pure and gentle enough for babies’ bottoms, a symbol of its corporate commitment to maternal and child health.
Sold in an iconic white bottle, its trademark fragrance is said to be one of the most recognizable in the world.
For decades, baby powder’s main ingredient was talc, a mineral known for its softness. 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.
Johnson & Johnson has spent decades casting doubt on reports of asbestos in baby powder and other talc body powders, saying that faulty testing, shoddy science and ill-equipped researchers are to blame for any concerning reports. But in recent years, thousands of people — mostly women — have sued the company over claims that it did not properly warn them of the risks of using baby powder.
As of late March, Johnson & Johnson faced 19,400 lawsuits related to talc body powders. After months of waiting, a federal judge ruled in April that plaintiffs’ scientific experts could testify with some exceptions — a blow against 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 in 2018. But the company has prevailed in other cases and is appealing nearly all of the cases it has lost.
On October, Johnson & Johnson recalled 33,000 bottles of baby powder after the Food and Drug Administration said it discovered evidence of chrysotile asbestos, a carcinogen, in a bottle purchased from an online retailer. Weeks later, the company said that multiple tests of the same bottle came up clean.
On Tuesday, the company 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 as consumer habits changed and concerns about the product spread. It said in a statement that it stood by the safety of its baby powder and “will continue to vigorously defend the product” in court.