White Powder, Black Lives
On July 8, 2020, a press release by the US organization Black Women for Wellness announced the worldwide mobilization of civil society groups over continuing sales of talc-based Johnson & Johnson (J&J) baby powder which has been found, on multiple occasions by government and independent analysts, to contain asbestos fibers.1 The text contrasted statements by J&Js CEO which professed support for racial justice and equity with the companys gross targeting of Black and Brown communities and assault on historically marginalized communities, especially in places like Africa, Asia and Latin America The contents of an internal J&J document (1992), linked to the press release, which considered marketing opportunities to grow the franchise amongst African American and Hispanic females despite negative publicity from the health community on talc (inhalation, dust, negative doctor endorsement, cancer linkage) 2 was damning. To capitalize on the high uptake of J&J baby powder by these groups the board planned to institute an adult Hispanic media program and potentially launch an adult Black print effort.
The systemic racism of Johnson & Johnsons marketing of its talc-based asbestos-contaminated baby powder was denounced in a June 30th, 2020 letter to J&J CEO Alex Gorsky written by Janette Robinson Flint Executive Director of Black Women for Wellness and signed by 170 groups from 50+ countries. In the letter Ms. Flint cited extracts from revealing internal company documents, scathing court rulings and high-profile media exposés which highlighted the companys discriminatory commercial practices such as targeted marketing to Black women and other historically marginalized communities. Flint asserted that J&J aggressively marketed its toxic talc to women of color, distributing free samples in Black churches and advertising on Spanish-language radio.3
Ms. Flints views were shared by M. Isabelle Chaudy, policy manager for the National Women's Health Network, a US advocacy group working since 1975 to change the conversation about womens health.4 While Ms. Chaudy welcomed the withdrawal of J&J baby powder from North American outlets, she agreed that the companys marketing policy had aggressively targeted African American, Latinx and overweight women.5 In an interview last month (June 26, 2020) on the American TV, radio and internet news program DemocracyNow!,6 Ms. Chaudy explained measures used by J&J to reach its target audience: curvy Southern women 18 to 49 skewing African-American. The company contracted a North Carolina-based African American PR firm Segmented Marketing Services, Inc. (SMS) which specialized in promotions to ethnic consumers. In 2010, SMS launched a radio advertising campaign in several Southern markets and distributed 100,000 gift bags containing baby powder and other Johnson & Johnson baby products in African American and Hispanic neighborhoods in Chicago. During the program, Ms. Chaudy condemned J&Js plans to continue selling its toxic baby powder overseas mentioning some of the companys key markets in Africa and Latin America specifically Ghana, South Africa, Kenya and Brazil.
J&J is facing 19,000+ lawsuits from cancer victims who allege that their illnesses were caused by exposure to asbestos in J&J baby powder. After the company announced the withdrawal of this product from markets in the US and Canada (May 2020), representatives of asbestos victims groups, health and safety associations and trade unions from around the world condemned the double standards of J&J and its prioritization of the lives of North Americans. Grassroots activist Mohit Gupta from the Occupational and Environment Health Network of India reported that:
Johnson & Johnsons talc-based baby powder is sold in India and is very popular. In fact, it has a dominant share in Indias very lucrative market for baby products. It is very shameful that the company has decided to continue sales in India as if Indian lives dont matter. This is yet one more example of corporations putting profit before the lives of people. Instead of replacing the toxic baby powder with one free of asbestos in India, as they are doing in North America, they are just pushing sales of this hazardous product in a market with weak regulatory mechanisms, few testing guidelines and low consumer awareness. Failure of manufacturers to warn potential users of hazards posed by use of their product is a crime but I cannot imagine Johnson & Johnson putting labels on the cannisters of baby powder stating that this product is no longer sold in US and Canada because of health concerns.7
Last month (May 2020), the Consumers Association of Penang (CAP) a Malaysian non-governmental campaigning organization of long-standing urged Malaysias Ministry of Health to ban talcum powder and talc-based products and advised consumers to use powder which is made from corn or rice flour. Mothers are advised to use ointments instead of medicated powders for rashes in babies.8
In a May 28, 2020 response to a CAP letter asking J&J justify the sale in Malaysia of a product deemed too toxic in the US and Canada to be sold and provide us with any tests that prove that the talc-based Johnsons baby powder sold in Malaysia does NOT contain asbestos fibers, the Managing Director of J&J Sdn Bhd (Malaysia) Chin Keat Chyuan issued bland reassurances about the safety of talc-based Johnsons baby powder, citing decades of scientific studies by medical experts around the world [which] support the safety of our product. Needless to say, he did not produce evidence that the J&J powder being sold in Malaysia was free of asbestos fibers. The last sentence of Chyuans letter boasted: All verdicts against the Company that have been through the appeals process have been overturned. While that might have been true at the time the letter was sent, it is untrue now.
On June 23, 2020 the three-judge panel of the Missouri Appellate Court upheld a 2018 St. Louis jury's verdict and awarded $2.1 billion to 20 women who contracted ovarian cancer from using J&Js talc-based baby powder. In its 83-page opinion, the Court found that Johnson & Johnson had engaged in reprehensible conduct by manufacturing and selling asbestos-containing talcum powder products over the course of many decades and that the plaintiffs had proved with convincing clarity that Defendants engaged in outrageous conduct because of an evil motive or reckless indifference.9 Furthermore, the Judges concluded that: A reasonable inference from all this evidence is that, motivated by profits, Defendants disregarded the safety of consumers despite their knowledge the talc in their Products caused ovarian cancer.10 This verdict is the largest to date won by plaintiffs exposed to asbestos in cosmetic talc products.
Commenting on the outcome of the litigation, the plaintiffs lead trial lawyer Mark Lanier said:
Johnson & Johnson has at long last been held accountable for its misconduct To their shame, decade after decade, Johnson & Johnson and its subsidiary knowingly manufactured and sold dangerous, life-threatening products. Since the verdict, J&J has finally quit selling this asbestos-laced talc product in the US and Canada. We are gratified that the court found the evidence presented at trial fully supported each one of the jury's findings, demonstrating the strength and credibility of the overwhelming scientific evidence proving the presence of asbestos and its life-threatening dangers. The opinion shows deep respect for the voice of the jury and admirable concern for the application of Missouri law.
Days after this stunning result, Lanier was asked his views about Johnson & Johnsons plans to continue selling talc-based baby powder to consumers outside of North America. His reply was as scathing as it was succinct:
Asbestos is asbestos, and people are people. Asbestos kills people. Asbestos does so without regard to where the people live, the language they speak, or the color of their skin. Why then, does J&J stop selling its asbestos-laced talcum powders only in the US and Canada? That is both racist, and inhuman.11
July 10, 2020
1 Black Women for Wellness Joins Over 170 Groups to Demand Johnson & Johnson Halt Global Sales of Popular Baby Powder Product. July 8, 2020.
2 Johnson & Johnson internal document. Johnsons Baby Powder. August 5, 1992.
3 Letter by Janette Robinson Flint. Executive Director of Black Women for Wellness to Alex Gorsky, CEO, Johnson & Johnson. June 30, 2020.
5 Statement on J&Js Discontinuation of Its Talc-Based Baby Powder in US and Canada. May 20, 2020.
6 In Racial Justice Victory, Johnson & Johnson to Pay $2B to Women in Asbestos-Laced Baby Powder Suit. June 26, 2020.
7 Press Release. Death, Duplicity and Double Standards. May 25, 2020.
8 Kazan-Allen, L. Double Standards: Toxic Talc Banned at Home, On Sale Abroad. May 28, 2020.
9 Missouri Appellate Court Finds "Reprehensible" Conduct By J&J in $2.1 Billion Verdict. June 23, 2020.
10 Women With Cancer Awarded Billions in Baby Powder Suit. June 23, 2020.
Also see: Watch Free 20-Minute Video Summary of Historic $4.7 Billion Talc Powder Trial. June 26, 2020.
11 Email from Mark Lanier. June 26, 2020.