Johnson & Johnson shareholders urged to end sale of talc baby powder | Pharmaceutical Industry
Women’s health groups are calling on Johnson & Johnson’s largest shareholders to force the company to halt all sales of its controversial talc-based baby powder and hire an independent firm to conduct a racial fairness audit.
The pressure comes after decades of independent science suggested a link between ovarian cancer and baby powder, and the Food and Drug Administration discovered cancer-causing asbestos in a batch of the product. Internal company filings show that Johnson & Johnson marketed it to African Americans and overweight women for years and, the groups allege, was aware of the asbestos contamination.
Two resolutions set to be voted on at the company’s virtual shareholder meeting on Thursday include one on directing Johnson & Johnson to stop selling talc-based baby powder worldwide and one on conducting the racial justice audit. A letter sent by an alliance of advocacy groups led by Black Women for Wellness to Vanguard, one of Johnson & Johnson’s major shareholders, said the investment firm had a “moral imperative” to support the proposals.
“Johnson & Johnson has betrayed the trust of consumers and investors while violating the rights of millions of people by selling asbestos-contaminated talc baby powder, intentionally assaulting black women marketing that product, refusing to admit wrongdoing and it continues to sell its talc-based baby powder worldwide,” the letter reads.
Although Johnson & Johnson stopped selling talc-based baby powder in the United States in 2020 due to mounting public pressure and nearly 38,000 lawsuits, the company continues to sell it in regions worldwide with high populations of people of color.
The American multinational has steadfastly denied its products contain asbestos, saying the allegations are based on flawed science. Her attorneys previously asked the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to block voting on the proposals because it would affect pending lawsuits around the world. The SEC allowed voting to continue.
Considered the softest mineral in the world, talc is often used by women as a genital antiperspirant and deodorant. The groups claim it is difficult to ensure talc is asbestos-free because they form naturally together and asbestos-contaminated talc fibers that enter the body have been linked to cancer. Many of the lawsuits against Johnson & Johnson have alleged that the product caused ovarian cancer.
According to reports from Reuters and other outlets, a division of the World Health Organization began classifying talcum powder as “possibly carcinogenic” in 2006, but Johnson & Johnson continued to sell it.
The company recalled 33,000 bottles in October 2019 after the FDA discovered chrysotile asbestos in a bottle purchased from an online retailer. It previously said it replaced talc with cornstarch amid plummeting sales “fueled by misinformation about the product’s safety.”
“We empathize with everyone living with cancer and understand that people are looking for answers,” the company said in a statement to the Guardian. “We believe these answers can be better understood through science – and decades of independent scientific testing by medical experts around the world have confirmed Johnson’s baby powder is safe, contains no asbestos and does not cause cancer.”
An internal Johnson & Johnson marketing report, leaked in 2006, revealed that the product was being launched specifically for “curvy Southern women aged 18-49 who are African American” and in “underdeveloped geographic areas with hot weather and above.” [African American] populations”.
“This could be an opportunity,” says a document about the product’s popularity with the community.
As part of the campaign, it distributed product samples to churches and beauty salons in African American and Hispanic neighborhoods and partnered with Weight Watchers.
“It doesn’t get any more specific, and to be honest, it’s racist,” said Astrid Williams, environmental justice program manager at Black Women for Wellness, who leads the plan. She said the “racist” marketing will continue as the powder is marketed in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
A company spokesman said the “idea that our company would intentionally and systematically target ill-intentioned consumers is unreasonable and utterly wrong.”
“Our products are safe and our campaigns are multicultural and inclusive,” she added.
The group’s letter to Vanguard also highlights the financial fallout: Johnson & Johnson has lost or settled lawsuits seeking billions of dollars in damages. This includes $2 billion in compensation for 22 plaintiffs who claimed they developed ovarian cancer after using Johnson & Johnson baby powder. Williams noted that 11 of those women have since died.
In response, Johnson & Johnson, headquartered in New Brunswick, New Jersey, is trying to avoid liability by creating a spin-off company that now houses its baby powder division and has filed for bankruptcy protection. It scored a legal victory in February when a federal judge refused to drop the case, but it was appealed to a higher court.
“If their products are safe and there are no issues, why are they taking these steps to try to bypass and find protection?” asked Williams. “It says they’re hiding something.”
Vanguard and other investment groups met with Tulipshare, an investment platform that pools stocks, to meet the threshold for filing resolutions for shareholder voting.
Public health advocates turned their attention to shareholders because “nothing else worked,” said Stacy Malkan, a volunteer and author of Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry.
“Including the science catching up to her, lawsuits from tens of thousands of women and pressure from hundreds of groups over the years,” she said. “They still sell talc baby powder, although safer alternatives are readily available.”
Activists are confident the strategy will succeed.
“There is no excuse for prioritizing short-term financial gain over women’s health and well-being,” the letter reads. “There should be no defense of the racist tactics that J&J used in marketing and selling its product. Racism is a public health threat and bad for business.”