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What does the baby powder recall mean for people with cancer?

When you hear the words “baby powder,” you might think of soft, dry skin. You might immediately conjure an image of a dusty white powder. You might catch a phantom whiff of a reassuring fragrance. Or you might think of chest aches, coughs, labored breathing and painful cancer treatments.

As The New York Times reports, more than 15,000 people have sued Johnson & Johnson, claiming the healthcare giant’s baby powder and other talc-based products gave them cancer. They argue that the products exposed them to trace levels of asbestos, a known carcinogen. Johnson & Johnson has countered by pointing to thousands of FDA tests that didn’t show asbestos, but that argument may now be weaker than ever.

 

How Johnson & Johnson’s argument may have been weakened

In December of 2018, Reuters published a special report that suggested Johnson & Johnson may have hidden information about asbestos tests from regulators and the public. The company argued that Reuters was misleading the public and that its products did not contain asbestos. However, its representatives gave multiple statements about the lack of asbestos:

  • The company’s vice president of global media relations claimed that “thousands of independent tests prove our talc does not contain asbestos.”
  • The company’s litigation counsel said that reports of asbestos in Johnson & Johnson products were “false and misleading.”
  • A spokesman for the company’s talc supplier said tests “consistently show no asbestos.”
  • A geologist frequently used as an expert witness quoted that he had “not found asbestos” in modern Johnson & Johnson products.

The company has likely focused on this argument because asbestos can cause cancers such as mesothelioma. No level of exposure is known to be safe. If Johnson & Johnson were to admit that its products could lead to asbestos exposure, it could undermine the idea that those products are safe.

However, as The New York Times noted, Johnson & Johnson recently recalled 33,000 bottles of baby powder. It did this after the FDA found trace amounts of asbestos. The company said the recall of lot 22318 RB owed to an “abundance of caution,” but the decision could have substantial legal consequences. Even though Johnson & Johnson has questioned the FDA’s findings, the recall looks like a tacit acceptance. And it may call the company’s old records back into question.

The stakes are high

As both Reuters and The New York Times pointed out, Johnson & Johnson’s Baby Powder represents only a small fraction of the company’s profits, but it’s a flagship product for the company’s brand. Even as the lawsuits against Johnson & Johnson could hurt the company’s bottom line, the possible damage to the company’s brand could be even worse.

Given the stakes, Johnson & Johnson is likely to keep fighting. The people who have cancer shouldn’t expect a quick resolution, but the recent news may give them more hope for a better outcome.

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