Johnson & Johnson ordered to pay $187.5 million in punitive damages over claims its talcum powder caused plaintiffs’ cancer
Johnson & Johnson still faces more than 16,000 similar lawsuits as well as a federal criminal investigation into how forthright it has been regarding its products’ safety. The company’s assertions of the safety of its baby powder have been seriously called into question after the FDA found trace amounts of asbestos in a sample of Johnson’s Baby Powder in 2019.
Johnson & Johnson, the multinational pharmaceutical and consumer goods giant, was ordered by a New Jersey state jury earlier this month to pay $750 million in combined punitive damages over claims it knowingly sold talcum powder that contained asbestos and failed to warn users. The four plaintiffs in the trial allege that asbestos, a known carcinogen, in the company’s baby powder caused their cancer. The verdict was later reduced by Judge Ana Viscomi to $187.5 million in accordance with New Jersey state law that caps punitive damages at five times the amount of compensatory damages.
Even after the verdicts, Johnson & Johnson maintained the safety of their product and vowed to appeal. “Today’s verdict is at odds with the decades of evidence showing the company acted responsibly, was guided by sound science and used the most sophisticated testing available for its talc,” the company said in a statement.
Johnson & Johnson still faces more than 16,000 similar lawsuits as well as a federal criminal investigation into how forthright it has been regarding its products’ safety (1). The company’s assertions of the safety of its baby powder have been seriously called into question after the FDA found trace amounts of asbestos in a sample of Johnson’s Baby Powder in 2019.
FDA survey finds asbestos in Johnson’s Baby Powder, prompting voluntary recall
Cosmetic products and their ingredients, according to the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act), do not have to undergo FDA review or approval before going to market (2). The FDA does, however, have a responsibility to monitor cosmetics and take appropriate action to protect consumer safety in a post-market setting.
In an effort to continue its work of protecting Americans from unsafe products, the FDA started conducting an ongoing survey of cosmetic products for asbestos in 2018. As part of the survey, two samples of Johnson’s Baby Powder were tested, and one of those tested positive for asbestos. Shortly thereafter, and out of “an abundance of caution,” Johnson & Johnson announced a voluntary recall of the affected lot of its Baby Powder in October of 2019.
Ned Sharpless, M.D., Acting FDA Commissioner, responded to the news, “I understand today’s recall may be concerning to all those individuals who may have used the affected lot of baby powder. I want to assure everyone that the agency takes these concerns seriously and that we are committed to our mandate of protecting the public health” (3).
Asbestos, talc, and baby powder
Talc, which is typically the primary ingredient in baby powder, is a naturally occurring mineral that is composed of magnesium, silicon, oxygen, and hydrogen. In addition to baby powder, talc is used in a number of other household and personal care products including chewing gum, polished rice, pharmaceutical pills and blush (4). Though talc is widely recognized as safe for use in these products, questions about the potential contamination of talc with asbestos have been raised since the 1970s.
Asbestos is also a naturally occurring mineral that can often be found in talc deposits. Unlike talc, though, asbestos is a known carcinogen. In 1976, the Cosmetic, Toiletry, and Fragrances Association (CTFA) issued guidelines for talc used in cosmetic products in the United States, stating it should be free from detectable amounts of asbestos (5).
Despite the CTFA’s guidelines, though, information was revealed in December of 2018 that alleged Johnson & Johnson knew for decades that their products contained traces of asbestos. The report, issued by Reuters, was based on thousands of pages of company memos and internal reports and documents. There was also evidence that Johnson & Johnson allegedly attempted to cover up information about this risk. The government of Sri Lanka recently halted its imports of Johnson & Johnson’s baby powder products because of these concerns.
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