Johnson and Johnson: Condemned!
Johnson & Johnson (J&J) has betrayed consumer and investor trust, while violating the rights of millions of individuals by selling asbestos-contaminated talcum baby powder, by intentionally targeting Black women in the marketing of this product, by refusing to admit wrongdoing, and by continuing to sell its talc-based baby powder worldwide.1
So wrote campaigners representing US advocacy groups to the CEO of the Vanguard Group, a US investment management firm and one of Johnson & Johnsons major shareholders, last month.2 The four-page letter was one of several initiatives to raise awareness of the racist and hypocritical marketing policy used by J&J which, having withdrawn its asbestos-laced talc-based baby powder from sale in the US and Canada in 2020, continues to sell it elsewhere.3
On the agenda for the J&J annual general meeting on April 28, 2022, was a resolution which called on shareholders to recognize:
the social justice and public health issues raised by multiple organizations and agencies, recommend that J&J discontinue global sales of its talc-based Baby Powder.4
Getting resolution 10 on the agenda had presented a formidable challenge with J&Js lawyers lodging multiple objections with the Securities and Exchange Commission to exclude the proposal from the companys proxy statement. Fortunately, the SEC rejected the companys arguments and approved the request by the activist-investor platform Tulipshare for shareholders to be balloted over the companys double standards.5
The original two-minute video6 submitted by Tulipshare to explain resolution 10 to shareholders was rejected on April 22, 2022 by J&J despite the fact that it complied with all the companys specifications. In its place, a stripped-down recording which was music-less and faceless was shown at the AGM.
Support for the motion was expressed by Institutional Shareholder Services, a proxy advisory firm, which noted that shareholders should remain aware of potential continued risks from this issue globally with another such firm Glass Lewis commenting that J&Js stopping all sales of talc-based baby powder could help to repair some damage to the companys reputation and could prevent potential lawsuits, fines or penalties in markets outside North America.7,8
Garnering only 15% of the shareholders vote, resolution 10 was not adopted.9 Commenting on the outcome, Antoine Argouges founder of the British activist-investor platform which had tabled this resolution said: This is no longer a political or legal or consumer problem, this is a shareholder problem.
His opinion was echoed by Liz Darlison, CEO of Mesothelioma UK and an NHS Mesothelioma Nurse Consultant, who said:
It beggars belief that the shareholders seem to believe it is okay not to have a universal standard of consumer protection for their talcum powder. Either Johnson & Johnsons talc-based baby powder is dangerous or it isnt and based on our understanding and evidence to date no one should be using body powder that has any remote chance of being contaminated with asbestos. Our nurses are increasingly now routinely asking our mesothelioma patients (particularly women) if they have used talc or talc-based makeup. We encourage patients to talk about this issue with their legal team too.10
Despite the fact that the use of all types of asbestos has been banned in the UK for over 20 years, 5,000 Britons die every year from asbestos-related diseases such as mesothelioma, lung cancer, ovarian cancer, asbestosis etc. Joanne Gordon, Chair of the Asbestos Victims Support Groups Forum UK, is appalled that a worldwide brand can, in the 21st century, still be playing fast and loose with the lives of its customers:
Would busy UK families be in the position to make an informed choice about the risks posed by using a product that might contain asbestos fibres? Johnson and Johnson is a long established company that many people trust, yet it is acting in a deplorable manner in prioritizing the health of North Americans and neglecting that of people overseas. Human life is sacrosanct. If the company is unable or unwilling to protect the health of all its customers, then government action is called for.11
Dr Monica Unseld, Founder/Executive Director of the US non-profit campaigning group Until Justice Data Partners,12 was passionate in her denunciation of Johnson & Johnson in a clip circulated on the twitter feed of Tulipshare on May 4, 2022:
They have literally put a price on our lives and decided its cost effective for us to get cancer. And the fact that we have to show them some sort of cash valuation to show them that racism is bad for business infuriates me Its very alarming that no one in the company is infuriated about this. That the shareholders are not infuriated about this. How dare you put a price on my life 13
Sreedhar Ramamurthi, from the organization Environics Trust (India) was furious about the outcome of the shareholders vote:
The lives of over a billion Indians count for nothing when compared to the profits of this American behemoth. This development is as clear a signal as possible about the value corporate America puts on lives in the Global South. Clearly, shareholders condone the double standards which outsource the deaths caused by the use of Johnson & Johnsons talc-based baby powder to non-Caucasians. Public health and consumer campaigners in India are not prepared to remain passive in the face of this aggression. 14
Reacting to the condemnation by the Ukraine Government of its continued presence in Russia, on March 29, 2022 Johnson and Johnson announced it was suspending the supply of its personal care products in Russia.15 One can but hope that the company will once again reverse an unjust policy and withdraw the sale of talc-based baby powder from all markets, not just those in North America. Considering the availability of its cornstarch-based baby powder this action will be neither onerous nor costly. A global recall of talc-based baby powder will be a powerful signal to customers as well as to shareholders, that each life is to be respected.
May 9, 2022
1 Letter to Mortimer J. Tim Buckley by US advocacy groups including Black Women for Wellness, Until Justice Data Partners, Inc., Breast Cancer Prevention Partners and Womens Voices for the Earth. April 15, 2022
2 Wikipedia. The Vanguard Group. Accessed May 2, 2022.
According to the Vanguard website, the companys mission is to to take a stand for all investors, to treat them fairly, and to give them the best chance for investment success.
3 Perkins, T. Johnson & Johnson shareholders called on to end talc baby powder sales. April 27, 2022.
4 Kazan-Allen, L. Holding Johnson and Johnson to Account. March 17, 2022.
6 Vote Yes on Resolution 10.
7 Glass Lewis is a proxy advisory firm which provides institutional investors with research and data, as well as recommendations on management and shareholder proxy proposals that are voted on at an organizations annual and special meetings.
8 Hsu, T. Johnson & Johnson investors reject proposal to end global talc sales. April 28, 2022.
[Subscription only] https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/28/business/johnson-johnson-baby-powder.html
9 Nardella, L. Proposal For J&J To Halt Talc Powder Sales Worldwide Fails In Shareholder Vote. May 2, 2022.
10 Email received from Liz Darlison, May 6, 2022.
11 Email from Joanne Gordon, May 6, 2022.
13 Audio clip by Dr Monica Unseld. Viewed on twitter on May 4, 2022.
14 Email received from Sreedhar Ramamurthi, May 8, 2022.
15 Media Statement. Johnson & Johnson Statement on War in Ukraine. March 29, 2022.