Johnson & Johnson (J&J) is facing more than 50,000 lawsuits in the United States brought by people who claim exposure to asbestos in talcum-based Johnson’s Baby Powder products caused them to develop ovarian cancer or mesothelioma, two types of cancer linked to talc exposure.
J&J has paid out over $2 billion in settlements so far, and has spent roughly $4.5 billion defending and settling the talc litigation, the Wall Street Journal reports. According to data compiled by Bloomberg, J&J has spent $178 million so far pursuing a controversial bankruptcy strategy that has failed twice. Using a move called the Texas Two Step, J&J attempted to spin off liability for talc settlements and jury awards to a new company that then declared bankruptcy. Critics have described the move as an abuse of bankruptcy laws and an attack on consumer protections.
Documents released at trial, and reported by Bloomberg and Reuters, suggest that J&J knew for decades that its talc supplies could be contaminated with asbestos, and that the company ramped up its marketing to African American women and other high-use groups. J&J states on its Facts About Talc website that its talc-based baby powers are free of asbestos and safe to use.
This fact sheet describes cancer links to talc body products, key developments in this story and links to source materials. We are posting discovery documents from the J&J talc lawsuits and related documents here: Johnson & Johnson talc papers.
In a statement to U.S. Right to Know, J&J said it will “vigorously litigate” the “meritless” talc cancer claims. “We empathize with anyone suffering from cancer and understand that people are looking for answers. We believe those answers can be better understood through science. Over 40 years of studies by independent medical experts around the world that support the safety of cosmetic talc.” You can read J&J’s full statement here.
What’s wrong with talc-based baby powder?
Johnson & Johnson’s launched its baby products business in 1894 with talc-based Johnson’s Baby Powder. It remains one of the company’s iconic products. Talc is a naturally occurring mineral that gives powdery products a silky, smooth feel. But some talc deposits are contaminated with asbestos, a mineral known to cause cancer. Asbestos is often mined in the same areas as talc, and is difficult to separate from talc.
Asbestos takes the form of thin fibers and fiber bundles that can be easily ingested or inhaled. There are six types: tremolite, actinolite, anthophyllite, chrysotile, amosite and crocidolite. These minerals have mostly been used in building materials and insulation, but their use has been significantly restricted in many countries due to serious health concerns.
Asbestos is a known human carcinogen, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). There is “no safe level” of asbestos exposure, according to the WHO.
IARC classifies talc that contains asbestos fibers as “carcinogenic to humans,” based on evidence linking asbestos-contaminated talc to increased cancer risk, and particularly ovarian cancer when used in the genital area. IARC classifies the perineal use of talc body powder not containing asbestos as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” based on limited evidence from human studies of a link to ovarian cancer.
Did Johnson & Johnson know its talc could contain asbestos?
Internal J&J documents reported and posted by Reuters suggest that “from at least 1971 to the early 2000s, the company’s raw talc and finished powders sometimes tested positive for small amounts of asbestos, and that company executives, mine managers, scientists, doctors and lawyers fretted over the problem and how to address it while failing to disclose it to regulators or the public.” The documents also “depict successful efforts to influence U.S. regulators’ plans to limit asbestos in cosmetic talc products and scientific research on the health effects of talc.”
Documents reported by Reuters include:
- Reports by a consulting lab in 1957 and 1958 describe contaminants in talc from an Italian supplier as fibrous and “acicular” or needle-like, tremolite.
- Reports from the 1970s into the early 2000s by J&J scientists, outside labs and J&J’s supplier identified contaminants in talc and finished powder products as asbestos (or “fiberform” and “rods”).
- In 1976, J&J told the FDA that no asbestos was “detected in any sample” of talc produced between December 1972 and October 1973 — but didn’t tell the agency that “at least three tests by three different labs from 1972 to 1975 had found asbestos in its talc – in one case at levels reported as ‘rather high,’” Reuters reported.
- Lab reports from 1973-2003 reported finding asbestos fibers at levels below J&J’s detection limit.
J&J pushed back with a statement that the Reuters’ reporting “ignores that thousands of tests by J&J, regulators, leading independent labs, and academic institutions have repeatedly shown that our talc does not contain asbestos.” J&J’s said on its Facts About Talc website that reports from the 1970s about asbestos in its talc were preliminary, erroneous and based on unreliable testing methodology.
In 2019, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration reported finding asbestos in a sample of Johnson’s Baby Powder. J&J disagreed with these findings too; the company said it voluntarily recalled the product “out of an abundance of caution” and was unable to confirm the finding of asbestos with third-party testing.
See also Bloomberg reporting, J&J Was Alerted to Risk of Asbestos in Talc in ’70s, Files Show
Johnson & Johnson ramped up marketing to Black women
In 2006, IARC classified cosmetic talc as “possibly carcinogenic” when used in the genital area. J&J then “looked for ways to sell more Baby Powder to two key groups of longtime users: African-American and overweight women,” Reuters reported in 2019. According to an internal J&J marketing memo obtained by Reuters, the “right place” to focus was “under-developed geographical areas with hot weather, and higher AA [African American] population.”
A 1992 J&J marketing memo, reported by Bloomberg, outlined “major opportunities and major obstacles” for sales of Johnson’s Baby Powder; it acknowledged that “negative publicity from the health community on talc (inhalation, dust, negative doctor endorsement, cancer linkage) continues.” The same memo includes a recommendation to ‘investigate ethnic (African-American, Hispanic) opportunities to grow the franchise,’ noting that these groups accounted for a high proportion of sales.
U.S. Right to Know has posted internal J&J marketing memos and other documents related to the trials here: Johnson & Johnson talc papers.
Black women’s groups and nuns push back
In May 2020, J&J announced it would discontinue sales of talc-based Johnson’s Baby Powder products in the U.S., due to dropping demand that was “fueled by misinformation around the safety of the product and a constant barrage of litigation advertising.” The company said it would continue selling talc-based powders elsewhere around the world.
Consumer and health groups protested that decision. In June 2020, Black Women for Wellness and 200 nonprofit groups from 50 countries asked J&J to “walk its talk on racial equity and valuing Black lives” by ending global sales of talcum-based baby powder. See correspondence:
- June 30, 2020 letter and July 8 press release from Black Women for Wellness and allies;
- Email response from J&J’s Kathleen Widmer;
- August, 26 2020 follow-up letter to J&J from BWW and 200 nonprofit groups.
In April 2022, 62 percent of J&J shareholders voted for the company to conduct a racial justice audit. The independent audit will analyze the racial impacts of J&J’s policies, practices and products, and recommend improvements. The shareholder resolution was introduced by Mercy Investment Services and presented by Sister Ivette Diaz; it was the only J&J shareholder resolution to pass that year. A resolution demanding the company end global sales of talc products failed to garner enough votes.
In August 2022, J&J announced it would end global sales of talc-based baby powders in 2023, but would continue selling the products while supplies last.
J&J’s Texas Two-Step ‘war on consumer protection’
As of October 2023, more than 50,000 women are suing J&J with claims that their frequent use of talc-based baby powders caused them to develop cancer. J&J won several cases and settled many, but also lost massive jury awards. In May 2018, a jury in St. Louis awarded nearly $4.7 billion in damages to 22 women; appellate courts upheld the verdict but reduced total damages to about $2 billion. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear J&J’s appeal.
J&J’s response to the lawsuits has been widely criticized as an assault on consumer rights. In October 2021, J&J tried to restructure the company with a maneuver to evade legal settlements called the Texas Two-Step. The Texas-based strategy allows companies to split into two separate entities and spin off legal liabilities into one of them.
Although J&J enjoys robust sales revenues—with worldwide sales reaching $21.4 billion for the third quarter of 2023—it created a new corporation on October 11, 2021 called LTL Management (the LTL stands for Legacy Talc Litigation) to pay claims from the baby powder lawsuits. Two days later, LTL Management declared bankruptcy. The move temporarily halted lawsuits filed by cancer victims who said they were harmed by J&J’s baby powder.
Corporate America is taking note of this “brazen legal strategy,” reported Casey Cep in The New Yorker. “If companies can use the two-step to protect themselves from any and all consumer liability, even from states themselves, what’s left to hold them accountable?”
Internal company memos reported by Reuters offer an inside view of the company’s legal strategy – dubbed “Project Plato.” J&J had assigned more than 30 staff to the project. “It is critical that any activities related to Project Plato, including the mere fact the project exists, be kept in strict confidence,” a company lawyer warned the team. Another memo noted, “Appropriate messaging (internally and externally) will be required to avoid or mitigate misunderstandings about the nature of the restructuring and negative publicity.”
J&J is posting information about the LTL Management’s Chapter 11 proceedings here.
Violating a “fundamental principle” of our legal system
Before the bankruptcy filing, J&J faced costs of $3.5 billion in verdicts and settlements for the talc-cancer cases, with thousands more cases pending. In its first bankruptcy filing, Reuters reported, J&J proposed giving LTL Management $2 billion to put into a trust to compensate 38,000 current plaintiffs, plus future claimants.
In its second filing, the company proposed to pay claimants $8.9 billion, which would have been one of the largest consumer settlements in U.S history. Courts rejected both bankruptcy claims filed by LTL Management, on the grounds that the company was not in financial distress. The company plans to appeal its case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Some influential Members of Congress objected to J&J’s bankruptcy maneuver. “A fundamental principle of our legal system is that people who have been harmed due to fraud, intentional misrepresentation, or the marketing and distribution of dangerous products have a right to seek restitution,” wrote the chairs of the Senate Judiciary Committee and House Oversight and Reform Committee and colleagues in a November 2021 letter to J&J CEO Alex Gorsky. They said the company was “attempting to deny tens of thousands of people their day in court …and leave cancer-victim claimants with pennies on the dollar.”
U.S. Rep. Jerry Nadler, ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, introduced the Nondebtor Release Prohibition Act in 2021, seeking to prevent companies from abusing bankruptcy laws. Sponsors of the bill condemned J&J’s use of bankruptcy to evade accountability for talc cancer claims. “Just like the Sacklers, who are using a legal loophole to escape accountability for their role in the opioid epidemic, Johnson & Johnson is blatantly abusing our bankruptcy system in a way that protects the wealthy and giant corporations, and stiffs the ordinary Americans who they have harmed,” said U.S. Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, chairwoman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform.
More than 40 health and consumer groups endorsed the bill, noting that, “Unless Congress acts, we can expect other corporations engaged in misconduct to use these same brazen legal maneuvers to cover-up wrongdoing, escape responsibility, and defraud victims.”
Johnson & Johnson’s strategy for talc litigation
In an October 2023 third-quarter earnings call, J&J’s Worldwide Vice President of Litigation Erik Haas described the company’s four-pronged strategy for dealing with the talc litigation. The company will:
- Appeal its failed Texas Two-Step bankruptcy attempts to the U.S. Supreme Court;
- Pursue a “consensual resolution” bankruptcy filing with a proposed settlement to be voted on by plaintiffs;
- Continue to “vigorously defend the meritless talc claims” in court. Haas referred to a recent New Jersey appellate court decision to toss out a $223.8 million talc powder verdict against J&J on the grounds that a lower court judge should not have allowed some of the scientific expert testimony presented by the plaintiffs.
- Pursue “affirmative litigation” in federal district court (see next section).
Johnson & Johnson is suing doctors for reporting cancer risk
As part of its legal strategy, J&J is initiating lawsuits against medical researchers. J&J’s talc subsidiary, LTL Management, filed two lawsuits this year against doctors for publishing studies citing a link between talc-based powders and cancer. The company said the doctors made false claims that damaged its reputation.
In July 2023, the J&J sued medical doctors Richard Lawrence Kradin, Theresa Swain Emory and John Coulter Maddox over their 2020 study in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine linking cosmetic talc use with malignant mesothelioma. In a separate lawsuit in May, J&J sued medical doctor Jacqueline Miriam Moline over her 2020 study in the Journal of Occupational Environmental Medicine.
Both studies described cases of malignant mesothelioma among people with no known asbestos exposure other than cosmetic talcum powder; researchers examined bodily tissues from a subset of people in their studies and reported finding asbestiform fibers of the type found in cosmetic talc.
In September, Dr. Moline asked a court to throw out the lawsuit against her, arguing that her research is sound and protected by free speech rights. She told the court the lawsuit was an effort to “intimidate” medical and scientific experts.
Is Johnson’s Baby Powder with talc still available for sale?
J&J said in May 2020 that it would discontinue sales of talc-based baby powders in the U.S. and Canada and replace it with cornstarch-based baby powders. J&J said talc powders would “continue to be sold in other markets around the world where there is significantly higher demand for the product.” After a campaign led by Black Women for Wellness, and a shareholder effort in 2022, J&J said it would discontinue sales globally of talc-based powders as of 2023.
Rather than pull products from shelves, the company said it will continue to sell existing inventory of talc powders “until it runs out.” As of 2023, some talc-based Johnson’s Baby Powder products are still available for sale in some stores and via Amazon.
J&J’s long history of dangerous products and practices
J&J has a long history of promoting unsafe products to vulnerable populations. In 2019, the Wall Street Journal reported that Johnson & Johnson is “facing lawsuits from more than 100,000 plaintiffs over its product safety and marketing tactics.” The company is taking an aggressive strategy of battling many cases in court, the Journal reported: “And it is losing. A lot.”
“Juries and judges have ordered the health-products giant to pay billions of dollars in several recent trials over claims that J&J’s signature baby powder and certain drugs and medical devices injured people, and that its marketing practices fueled the opioid-addiction epidemic,” wrote Peter Loftus.
Here are some of the legal actions and scandals involving the company’s products and practices:
Opioid Epidemic: Johnson & Johnson was among several pharmaceutical companies sued by various states and municipalities “for its contribution to an epidemic of prescription and street opioid abuse that has killed more than 800,000 Americans in the last 20 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” the New York Times reported.
In February 2022, J&J and three major pharmaceutical distributors finalized nationwide settlements clearing the way for “$26 billion to flow to nearly every state and local government in the U.S.,” AP reported. J&J said in a statement that it will contribute “up to $5 billion to the nationwide settlement, which is designed to directly support state and local efforts to make meaningful progress in addressing the opioid crisis in the United States.”
For more details on the opioids investigation, litigation and settlements, see the National Association of Attorneys General page on opioids.
Risperdal: Johnson & Johnson’s subsidiary, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, faced lawsuits related to its antipsychotic drug Risperdal. The company was accused of downplaying the risks of gynecomastia (male breast growth) in young boys and not properly disclosing side effects. Several multi-million-dollar settlements were reached. In October 2019, a Philadelphia jury awarded $8 billion in punitive damages to a man claiming his use of Risperdal when he was a boy caused abnormal breast enlargement.
For a deep dive into the Risperdal lawsuits, see Steven Brill’s reporting on America’s Most Admired Lawbreaker. Brill reports, “Over the course of 20 years, Johnson & Johnson created a powerful drug, promoted it illegally to children and the elderly, covered up the side effects and made billions of dollars.” The article explains the financial incentives corporations like J&J have for paying settlements and jury awards, rather than taking dangerous products off the shelves.
Transvaginal mesh products: Johnson & Johnson and its subsidiary, Ethicon, have faced numerous lawsuits over transvaginal mesh products used to treat pelvic organ prolapse and urinary incontinence. These lawsuits allege that these products have produced serious complications and injuries for some patients. J&J and Ethicon have settled thousands of cases. In 2019 the companies agreed to pay nearly $117 million to resolve allegations that they deceptively marketed the vaginal mesh devices, according to state attorney generals involved in the case. “Companies have a responsibility to fully disclose the risks associated with their products. Johnson & Johnson and its subsidiary were aware of possible serious medical complications associated with transvaginal surgical mesh, but they did not warn consumers,” said Josh Shapiro, who was Pennsylvania Attorney General at that time.
In February 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court let stand a $302 million judgment against J&J in a lawsuit brought by the state of California accusing the company of concealing the risks of its pelvic mesh products, Reuters reported.
DePuy hip implants: J&J subsidiary, DePuy Orthopaedics, faced lawsuits over its metal-on-metal hip implants which were alleged to have a high failure rate, causing severe complications. In 2013, J&J agreed to pay $2.5 billion to an estimated 8,000 patients “who have been forced to have the all-metal artificial hip removed and replaced with another device,” the New York Times reported. The company agreed to also pay all medical costs related to the procedures.
As of 2019, J&J had paid about $1 billion to settle the hip implant lawsuits, with 95% of the cases settled, Bloomberg reported.
Xarelto: J&J faced lawsuits related to their blood-thinning drug, Xarelto. Plaintiffs alleged that the drug caused severe bleeding events and that the companies did not provide adequate warnings about these risks. Some of these lawsuits resulted in settlements. In March 2019, J&J and Bayer said they had agreed to pay $775 million to settle about 25,000 lawsuits involving Xarelto, which they jointly sell, the New York Times reported.
Invokana: J&J’s Janssen Pharmaceuticals faced lawsuits over its diabetes drug, Invokana. The drug has been linked to diabetic ketoacidosis, kidney failure and an increased risk for amputations of the leg, foot and toes. FDA began investigating these concerns in 2016 and required a black box warning on the product in 2017, confirming an “increased risk of leg and foot amputations with the diabetes medicine canagliflozin (Invokana, Invokamet, Invokamet XR).”
An investigation for Reuters by Chad Terhune and Robin Respaut found that “as red flags multiplied,” J&J “kept quiet” for years about the risks of its diabetes drug. “Based on interviews with several former J&J employees and a review of company documents … Reuters found that in the five years prior to regulators’ intervention, J&J was repeatedly alerted to Invokana’s ketoacidosis risk and took no action …” Terhune and Respaut wrote.
“Later, as injury reports piled up, J&J executives repeatedly overruled safety concerns raised internally, leaving doctors and patients in the dark about the health risk … All the while, J&J poured tens of millions of dollars into marketing Invokana as a safe, effective treatment for millions of people with type 2 diabetes.”
In October 2018, J&J and Janssen Pharmaceuticals agreed to settle more than 1,000 Invokana cases for an undisclosed amount.
Partners with EcoHealth Alliance: J&J partners with the EcoHealth Alliance, a funder of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which is at the center of the controversy over the origins of Covid-19. See our reporting on EcoHealth Alliance here.
Expert Review Under Attack: Glyphosate, Talc, and Cancer, by Jonathan M. Samet MD, MS, American Public Health Journal (7.19)
Inside corporations’ war on science: A new book explains how corporations create a climate of doubt around science and expertise, Vox interview with David Michaels (5.26.20)
Johnson & Johnson “regrets” 1971 study that injected asbestos into US prisoners, by Owen Dyer, The BMJ (3.15.22)
It’s Past Time to Pull the Plug on Use of Talc, by Professor Judith T. Zelikof, New York University, Wall Street Journal Opinion (7.15.20)
Black Lives should matter in the medicine cabinet too, by Marcha Isabelle Chaudry, Columbia Tribune (7.7.20)
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Stacy Malkan is managing editor of U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit public health research group. She is author of the book, “Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry” (New Society Publishers, 2007).