Holding Johnson and Johnson to Account
Still reeling from the explosion of bad press over its abandonment of cancer sufferers exposed to asbestos in its baby powder via the controversial legal stratagem known as the Texas two-step,1 the American pharmaceutical giant Johnson and Johnson (J&J) was revealed this month to have used male participants incarcerated in the US prison system as guinea pigs in the 1960s & 1970s. The subjects, most of whom were African-American inmates at Holmesburg Prison in Pennsylvania, were injected with tremolite and chrysotile asbestos fibers to compare the [effects of the] cancer-causing compound to talc.2 In testimony provided by medical expert Dr. David Egilman, the biggest effect on inmates skin was produced by injections of chrysotile asbestos fibers which led to the formation of granulomas, or cells clumped together in a raised area. 3
According to Bloomberg News, this contentious research was strong evidence that the company had been well aware of the health risks posed by the use of its talc-based baby powder for decades, long before the first cancer cases were lodged. California-based lawyer Joe Satterley, who represented teacher Christina Prudencio who won a $26 million+ cancer lawsuit against J&J in 2021, concurred:
The research at Holmesburg shows J&J was worried about asbestos in its talc decades ago. Why else would they pay University of Pennsylvania dermatologist Albert Kligman to inject asbestos into prisoners?4
The news about the human experimentation was unearthed in documents reviewed by US attorneys during pre-trial research and was submitted as evidence in a trial in 2019.5 There was, as would be expected, global interest in the disclosures by Bloomberg with articles about this story appearing in the US, UK, Italy, France, Turkey, Russia and elsewhere.6
Johnson & Johnsons response to the outrage caused by its injection of Pennsylvania prisoners with asbestos was as predictable as it was unconvincing:
We deeply regret the conditions under which these studies were conducted, and in no way do they reflect the values or practices we employ today... As the worlds largest healthcare company, our transparent, diligent approach to bioethics is at the heart of all we promise our customers and society.
Having acknowledged its actions J&J, nevertheless, said: the tests did not violate research standards at the time.7
Has Johnson and Johnson learned any lessons from the public censure its misdeeds have brought it? It seems not. In the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, other Western companies pulled out of Russia, not so J&J which has offices in Moscow, Novosibirsk, St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg. Last week, Ukraines Ministry of Foreign Affairs called for governments and consumers around the world to boycott the products of companies which continue to operate in Russia; included on that list was Johnson and Johnson.8
J&Js continued marketing of asbestos-contaminated talc-based baby powder around the world having voluntarily withdrawn it from sale in Canada and the US in 2020 has also attracted criticism. This month, the US Securities and Exchange Commission approved a request from an activist investor platform Tulipshare to table a resolution at the companys April 2022 Annual General Meeting:
RESOLVED: Shareholders of Johnson & Johnson (JNJ), in recognition of the social justice and public health issues raised by multiple organizations and agencies, recommend that JNJ discontinue global sales of its talc-based Baby Powder.9
J&Js lawyers have been aggressively fighting this attempt to highlight yet another unsavoury aspect of the companys marketing policy and called on the SEC to exclude the proposal from the companys proxy statement.10 The SEC rejected the companys arguments saying the proposal does not deal with Johnson & Johnsons litigation strategy or the conduct of the litigation to which Johnson & Johnson is a party.
According to a statement issued by Tulipshare, the group hopes the proposal will send a message to companies worldwide that retail investors are willing to unite their shareholder rights and ensure accountability on social issues.11 Amen to that.
March 17, 2022
1 Kazan-Allen, L. Spotlight on Johnson and Johnson. February 14, 2022.
2 Vinluan, F. Bloomberg: Court docs reveal J&Js role in prison tests comparing talc to asbestos. March 7, 2022
3 Kansteiner, F. J&J says it regrets injecting prisoners with asbestos, but such experiments were 'widely accepted' at the time. March 8, 2022.
Also see: Caldwell, G. Prisoners Injected with Asbestos in Johnson & Johnson-Funded Study. March 14, 2022.
Feeler, J. J&Js controversial prison testing with a Penn doctor resurfaces in baby powder lawsuits. March 8, 2022.
4 Email from J. Satterley. March 16, 2022.
5 According to an informed source, the Judge in the 2019 trial against J&J redacted the documents as it was, in his opinion, too prejudicial to tell the jury that the men [the test subjects] were prisoners and predominantly African American.
6 Feeley, J. J&Js Controversial Prison Testing Resurfaces in Baby Powder Lawsuits. March 7, 2022. [Subscription only].
Also see: Biagioli, F. Johnson & Johnson: gli effetti collaterali dellamianto testati sulla pelle dei detenuti [Johnson & Johnson: Asbestos Side Effects Tested on Prisoners Skin]. March 8, 2022.
Paget, C. J&J regrette davoir payé pour une étude qui a injecté de lamiante à des hommes noirs incarcérés [J&J regrets paying for study that injected asbestos into incarcerated black men]. March 7, 2022.
Merkezi, H. Bebek pudrasının kansere yol açtığını gizleyen J&J siyah mahkumları asbest deneylerinde kullanmış. [Concealing that baby powder causes cancer, J&J used black prisoners in asbestos experiments]. March 8, 2022.
Johnson & Johnson опять под прицелом: новые истории о детской присыпке [Johnson & Johnson under the gun again: new stories about baby powder]. March 15, 2022.
7 Vinluan, F. Court docs reveal J&Js role in prison tests comparing talc to asbestos. March 7, 2022
8 Varney S, Kaiser Health News. Which companies arent exiting Russia? Big Pharma. March 11, 2022.
9 Tetley, L. Cancerous baby powder may get the boot, thanks to Tulipshare. March 10, 2022.
Kazan-Allen, L. Spotlight on Johnson and Johnson. February 14, 2022.
10 Tulipshare. Press Release: Activist investing platform wins bid against Johnson & Johnson. March, 2022. Not currently online.
11 Email from Jenna Luvin. Chief Marketing Officer, Tulipshare. Received March 10, 2022.