In the 1970s, pediatricians began warning new parents not to use Johnson & Johnson’s Baby Powder or other talc-based powders to address diaper rash because it is dangerous for infants to inhale talc powder. Unfortunately, that left J&J needing a new business model. They chose to market the product to adults as a powder with antiperspirant and deodorant qualities.
People were told they could stay fresh with the naturally occurring product. By the mid-2000s, adult use came to account for 91% of all J&J baby powder sales. In an internal marketing presentation, J&J described the product as its No. 1 asset and touted the “deep, personal trust” consumers had in the product.
Yet about 20 years before, health researchers at the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) had identified a major problem. Some talc products were tainted with asbestos. The agency classified “talc containing asbestiform fibres” as a human carcinogen.
In 2006, IARC, which is an arm of the World Health Organization, delivered even more troubling news. Even untainted by asbestos, talc might still be carcinogenic. It classified the use of talc as a perineal (genital) deodorant to be “possibly carcinogenic.”
IARC’s classification was a warning to Johnson & Johnson that their product could be dangerous for use as an antiperspirant and deodorant, as users frequently applied the product to the perineal area. Internal documents obtained by Reuters suggest that J&J feared the new information could be the “last straw” that put people off the product for good.
J&J’s talc supplier immediately labeled the substance as a possible human carcinogen. By contrast, J&J began marketing campaigns to deliver-without warnings-even more of the product to consumers.
According to a recent expose by Reuters, J&J didn’t just double-down on advertising. It intentionally targeted African-American and Latina women, whom it perceived as more likely to use talc for hygiene. It also continued touting the product’s antiperspirant and deodorant properties to capitalize on the fears of overweight women and people who were into fitness.
Did J&J know its baby powder could cause ovarian cancer?
Reuters has been covering this story for months and, in December, it reported that J&J has known for decades that its talc products are sometimes tainted with asbestos. The first allegations that J&J baby powder caused cancer came in 1999.
In response to questions from Reuters, J&J sharply defended itself. “Suggesting that Johnson & Johnson targeted a particular group with a potentially harmful product is incredibly offensive and patently false.”
It also insisted that Johnson & Johnson’s Baby Powder and other talc products are not only safe but asbestos free. It added that “we’re proud pioneers of the practice of multicultural marketing.”
Yet in 2014, the State of Mississippi sued J&J, accusing it of engaging in a “racially targeted strategy” to market baby powder despite being aware of health concerns.
That was after a 2013 jury ruled that J&J’s baby powder can cause ovarian cancer when used for feminine hygiene. Of eight ovarian cancer claims that have gone to trial so far, seven resulted in verdicts against J&J, although three of them were overturned on appeal.
Of the 12 cases where plaintiffs claimed that asbestos-tainted talc caused their mesothelioma, the plaintiffs have won three. Four others resulted in hung juries. In five cases, J&J was cleared of liability.
The company is appealing every case it lost.