Johnson & Johnson represents a global $350 billion dollar empire from a 133 year old legacy of success with hygiene, hair and health care products. Yet, it’s facing over 11,000 more lawsuits in the coming year and troubling public charges that one of its more famous products, baby powder, is giving numerous Black women cancer.
Baby powder has always defined Johnson & Johnson’s success. But, in recent years, it has found itself embroiled in revealing lawsuits and billion dollar payouts to numerous cancer victims over allegations that it knowingly marketed a carcinogenic product with no warning labels. A barrage of legal problems are mounting, including foreign bribery, consumer fraud, illegal marketing and cover-ups.
Black women are, unwittingly, at the center of that controversy. Meanwhile, J&J is fast expanding into Africa as questions emerge over how its products may have become a public health crisis for Black people in America.
THE HIDDEN DANGERS OF THE “PERSONAL CARE” MARKET
In 2015, researchers in California found that 44% of Black women used talcum powder as opposed to 30% of their White counterparts. Black folks make up about 13 percent of the population of the United States, but account for 22 percent of the $42 billion-a-year personal care products market.
Black women are nested between an intergenerational pride in self-care and White-influenced standards of beauty. And many critics of corporate marketing methods have argued that such tension makes Black women perfect targets for shady consumer practices.
Which brings us to baby powder. Researchers have long suspected the famously used product, which catapulted J&J to its current success, was cancer causing. And according to a special December 2018 investigative report by Reuters, so did Johnson and Johnson.
There have been a number of studies, more research is ongoing, and the scientific community’s conclusions are mixed. A 2013 Cancer Prevention Research Journal analysis combined many of those studies and discovered “ … a small-to-moderate (20 to 30 percent) increased risk of ovarian cancer with genital-powder use, most clearly pertaining to non-mucinous epithelial ovarian tumors.”
What’s driven increased speculation and growing concern is a crucial question: Has ubiquitous use of baby powder by African American women been one major cause behind high rates of ovarian cancer in that demographic? Many, like AfroPunk’s Bridget Todd, are convinced it is: “Companies like Johnson & Johnson exploit Black women by telling us something is wrong with our bodies; then selling us products that can kill us to fix it. About twice as many Black women douche and deodorize compared with our white women,” writes Todd while citing research from Francesca Branch, Tracey J. Woodruff, Susanna D. Mitro and Ami R. Zota. “These researchers found that like baby powder, over-the-counter douches and vaginal deodorizers contain ingredients like phthalates that are linked to cancer.”
In 1992, Bloomberg obtained a memo that would provide useful evidence in state and federal courts across the nation showing Johnson & Johnson knew their baby powder was targeting African American (and Latina) women and that it was linked to cancer. “Investigate ethnic (African American, Hispanic) opportunities to grow the franchise,” the memo stated. “Johnson’s Baby Powder has a high usage rate among African-Americans (52.0%) and among Hispanics (37.6%) …. The brand can increase volume in 1993 by targeting these groups.”
The memo goes on to note a list of major obstacles. Typed onto that list was negative PR caused by “cancer linkage.”
DO YOU EVEN WANT TO USE THIS ANYMORE?
In 1971, researchers discovered talc particles embedded in 10 of 13 ovarian tumors. The medical community was alerted to this possibility, and in the years since countless studies have confirmed a strong link between talc and ovarian cancer.
It is believed that talc particles travel inside a woman’s body and through the reproductive system before embedding into the ovaries. Initially, researchers assumed that only talc sprinkled near the genital area caused this to happen – but, it was also believed that the talc simply stopped before it entered the abdominal cavity.
Both of these assumptions may have been, tragically, incorrect.
Not only does talc continue to move through the body, but it is also associated with increased cancer risks no matter where it is used. That is a stunning development considering talc is a key component in many household items – especially items Black women use – such as cosmetics and deodorants.
Adding to the dangers of this fine white powder is the fact that talc naturally forms alongside a very dangerous known carcinogen: asbestos.
Alarmingly enough, baby powder has been linked to mesothelioma. What is mesothelioma? It’s a very vicious form of cancer that attacks the thin tissue protecting most internal organs. And while treatments are available, most victims will never find a cure for it.
According to the Mesothelioma Center, “Whether a particular talc product contains asbestos has everything to do with its geologic source. If the talc deposit contains asbestos or asbestiform minerals, the products made with that talc are likely contaminated with asbestos.”
The link between talc and mesothelioma has also been well documented since the 1970’s. Asbestos particles are inhaled and travel into the body through nasal passageways before settling into the lungs and, for those suffering from mesothelioma, causing cancer.
BLACK WOMEN HAVE A TALC PROBLEM
Continued research into linkages between baby powder and cancer puts an unwanted spotlight on J&J’s marketing methods and internal operations. Constant litigation and reporting not only shows evidence they were aware their product contained carcinogenic elements, but they disproportionately ramped up marketing to Black women while having full knowledge of the cancer risks.
Johnson and Johnson could just opt to remove talc from its products and find a healthier alternative. Instead, the company continues absorbing hundreds of millions of dollars in legal payouts. It’s a strange decision. And if the direct talc-cancer linkage is as devastating as some research would suggest, it’s also the type of decision that could be asymmetrically costing the Black community tens of thousands of its women.
To Johnson and Johnson, however, Black women are considered “major opportunities.”
With 21,000 new cases of ovarian cancer and 3,000 new cases of mesothelioma diagnosed each year, there seems to be a long line of people potentially victimized by carcinogenic products. Many of these cases will, likely, be brought to trial.
There are already nearly 11,000 liability suits against J&J, with plaintiffs claiming health issues directly connected to the use of baby powder.
Some of those plaintiffs are winning in court. Jaqueline Fox, an African American woman from Alabama, was the first of four women who sued Johnson & Johnson and were awarded a combined $307 million by a St. Louis jury in February 2016. Her family was awarded $72 million dollars, but the verdict was later overturned. A Missouri appeals court reasoned that because Fox was from Alabama, she had no standing to bring suit in the St. Louis courtroom.
Then, in December 2018, a Missouri appeals court refused to overturn a verdict awarding $4.7 billion dollars to 22 women that claimed Johnson and Johnson’s talc powder was responsible for their ovarian cancer.
AFRICA: A NEW MARKETING FRONTIER
Overturned cases in California and upheld cases in New Jersey give cancer victims unsure footing as they navigate both fatal disease and unfriendly criminal justice system. One thing, however, is certain: Johnson and Johnson not only refuses to remove talc from troubled products, but it doubles down on claims that their baby powder is perfectly safe while expanding markets into places where tens of millions of more Black women will use those same products.
Clearly, it’s becoming more difficult to penalize Johnson and Johnson in any substantial way for distributing a known carcinogen to women in the United States. But the impoverished women and children in sub-Saharan Africa will likely have little to no medical or legal recourse if this becomes an issue there.
In 2016, the makers of some of the more familiar name brands in home healthcare – names like Tylenol, Band-aid, Neutrogena, and Clean & Clear – launched a new global public health strategy in Africa. The stated goal: “[to] work in close partnership with local governments and NGOs on the ground to help get the most innovative treatments for such diseases as HIV and tuberculosis to the people who need them the most, as well as develop programs designed to improve access to healthcare for vulnerable communities throughout Africa.”
Along with these innovative treatments, though, Johnson and Johnson will be improving Africa’s access to their “health care” products, most specifically Johnson and Johnson’s troubled baby powder. That effort began with the 2016 opening of what the company dubbed “global public health operations” in Cape Town, South Africa. Since then, not only has J&J launched its “Africa Innovation Challenge,” along with the expansion of “Women in Innovation” and “Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa” programs throughout the continent, but it’s also opened additional regional offices in Ghana and Kenya.
Not unlike Black women in the United States, Africa is a land of “major opportunities” … and, incidentally, much fewer regulatory frameworks to reign in abuse. As a recent Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance report argued, “[p]eople within the African region do not often have access or information that would facilitate the securing of rights and community perspectives on rights have not been codified as law, neither do they feature in actions that impact at a local level.”
What would it then mean when a company introduces a potentially dangerous healthcare product into African markets challenged by a lack of “rule of law?”
Meanwhile, a court in India recently ruled that the beauty and skin-care company must stop using raw materials in their baby powder. Back in the United States, there are no signs the courts or the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) – which relies on companies like J&J to “self-regulate” – are forcing the company to label its products’ risks or to take them off the shelves altogether. Lawsuits have cost J&J billions of dollars in revenue. Yet, the company’s profit margins are still skyrocketing and show few signs of slowing down – in fact, profits were actually up by 3 percent in 2018. And while the battle over baby powder rages on in America, it’s just beginning in Africa.