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Health and wellness giant Johnson & Johnson knew that their products caused cancer and chose to keep that information secret while manipulating research and regulations to protect the company. Executives allowed consumers to become ill and die, even going so far as to lie in court, in order to protect the company’s reputation and bottom line.
According to an investigation by Reuters, Johnson & Johnson knew for decades that its signature baby powder contained asbestos and kept the information from regulators and the public. Though executives at the company have denied the report, Johnson & Johnson stock fell nearly 13% over the weekend, costing over $50 billion in market capitalization.
Talc, one of the softest minerals on earth and the primary ingredient in J&J’s baby powder, is mined from underground deposits. Asbestos is a dangerous carcinogen responsible for causing mesothelioma, lung cancer, and ovarian cancer. Asbestos is also found underground and can often be found in talc deposits, creating a risk for cross-contamination.
J&J has been sued countless times over claims that their baby powder causes cancer, but plaintiffs were often unable to obtain the internal records they needed to prove the company’s guilt. Several of these cases have gone to trial, including a case this summer in which 22 women, who blamed asbestos in the baby powder for causing ovarian cancer, were awarded $4.7 billion by a St. Louis jury.
You see, Johnson & Johnson has been able to keep their internal documents private for years, labeling them “confidential.” This new report sheds light on information that has not been made available to the public before – including internal documents, research results, and trial testimony – which tells a chilling tale. According to Reuters:
[The information] shows that from at least 1971 to the early 2000s, the company’s raw talc and finished powders sometimes tested positive for small amounts of asbestos, and that company executives, mine managers, scientists, doctors and lawyers fretted over the problem and how to address it while failing to disclose it to regulators or the public.”
It goes on to say that the documents “also depict successful efforts to influence U.S. regulators’ plans to limit asbestos in cosmetic talc products and scientific research on the health effects of talc.” Reports from as far back as 1957 describe talc contaminated with fibrous tremolite, a recognized type of asbestos.
You can read these previously unreleased documents for yourself here.
Americans have been using Johnson and Johnson products since the 1880s, and Johnson’s Baby Powder (officially branded in 1893) has been used by mothers to help prevent chafing in diaper-aged children for well over a century. The Johnson & Johnson brand was established on the “Safety First” motto and is one of the only health and beauty companies in the world to put the company name on all of their products.
And for 125 years, that approach has worked. Johnson & Johnson is a massive company that has been trusted by consumers to be safe and effective. In addition to Johnson’s Baby Powder, the company also manufactures:
- Clean & Clear
- and a host of other recognizable brands
Although Johnson’s Baby Powder accounts for only a small percent of their nearly $80 billion annual revenue, it is one of the most widely used personal care products worldwide. With one of the most recognizable fragrances in the world, the powder has been used for infants in diapers, as a feminine hygiene product, to prevent chafing, and as an all-purpose freshener.
And its users invariably inhale the carcinogenic, airborne powder.
Johnson & Johnson has since launched an aggressive campaign, attempting to stop one of the biggest financial slides in the company’s history. They’ve redesigned their website, revising a section called “Talcum Powder and Cancer” which used to say that “all talcum products have been asbestos free” to now say that guidelines state talc product should be free of asbestos. The website’s homepage now features a message from CEO Alex Gorsky about talc safety. Gorsky even appeared on CNBC’s Mad Money last night in an interview with the show’s host, Jim Cramer.
“What’s really important to focus on is not to select just one document, one piece of evidence, but to look at the body of evidence in totality” Gorsky said on the show. “And when you do that, in this case, again, we remain very confident in the safety of our products, but more importantly, the actions of our people.”
But the evidence tells a different tale, in which J&J executives repeatedly made efforts to silence any studies that showed the powder to be harmful. In the 1970s, several studies and independent researchers found trace amounts of asbestos in Johnson & Johnson powders. But that didn’t stop a powerful spin machine from protecting the money-making giant.
In 1971, researchers from Mount Sinai Medical Center found asbestos in the lungs of people who had never worked with the mineral. They posited that talc powders, often contaminated with asbestos, may play a role and reported their findings to New York City environmental protection chief Jerome Kretchmer. A press conference was called, and an inquiry opened by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
The company issued the following statement:
“Johnson & Johnson takes great care to assure the purity of its products, even to the extent of mining and processing our own talc for use in baby powder. Our fifty years of research knowledge in this area indicates that there is no asbestos contained in the powder manufactured by Johnson & Johnson.”
Months after the statement was released, mineralogist Arthur Langer, of the Mount Sinai research team, wrote a letter to Johnson & Johnson. He informed them that he had found a “relatively small” amount of chrysotile asbestos in Johnson’s Baby Powder. Both the researchers and Kretchmer were added to the company’s list of “antagonistic personalities” a year later.
Meanwhile, Johnson & Johnson appeared to be cooperating with the FDA, sending samples of its talc to private labs for testing. The company sent the results of the tests to the FDA with a cover letter stating that the results “clearly show” no sign of chrysotile asbestos. An FDA document said that J&J provided “evidence that their talc contains less than 1%, if any, asbestos.”
But the information Johnson & Johnson shared with the FDA was incomplete. It excluded the results of testing on Shower to Shower by University of Minnesota professor Thomas Hutchinson. Professor Hutchinson found chrysotile in the popular powder that he described as “incontrovertible asbestos” in his lab notes.
The Reuters investigation found several more instances in which Johnson & Johnson deliberately omitted information or research results to present their products in a more favorable light. Still, the company had to acknowledge that there may be trace amounts of asbestos in their powders.
They launched studies and lobbied the FDA, citing a “large safety factor” for talc containing less than one percent asbestos. They claimed that the exposure was still inside OSHA’s workplace exposure limits and shouldn’t be an issue for consumers. An FDA official named Dr. Shaffner was quoted as saying the idea was foolish, because “no mother [is] going to powder her baby with 1 percent of a known carcinogen irregardless [sic] of the large safety factor.”
And why would they? Why would any of us continue to use a product that’s been shown to cause cancer? The answer is: we wouldn’t. And that’s why Johnson & Johnson has gone to such great lengths to keep this information from both federal regulators and consumers. What’s worse, Johnson’s Baby Powder only accounts for half a percent of the company’s annual revenue. The lies and deceit are protecting an extremely small part of the pharmaceutical giant’s empire.
On CNBC last night, CEO Alex Gorsky stood in front of a camera on national television and told the American public that he believes “unequivocally” that J&J powders don’t contain asbestos. He went on to say that we needed to look at the body of evidence “in totality,” claiming that any evidence that showed the presence of asbestos could be blamed on varied testing methods or statistical outliers. But is that true?
Lawyers defending Johnson & Johnson in court have given a plethora of wild excuses for the presence of asbestos in their talc samples. “This sample was intended for industrial use” they claim. “That type of asbestos is harmless.” They’ve even suggested that some talc samples had been contaminated by “background” asbestos. That the talc was pure and must have been contaminated somehow during testing.
But if that’s true, why has the company kept the information from the public for so long? Why, as Reuters discovered, have they made such a concerted effort to influence policy and regulation involving talc purity and testing? In her ruling against J&J, Middlesex County Superior Court Judge Ana Viscomi said:
Providing the FDA favorable results showing no asbestos and withholding or failing to provide unfavorable results, which show asbestos, is a form of a misrepresentation by omission.”
To be clear, “misrepresentation by omission” means lying.
A confidential memo to Johnson & Johnson managers in the baby products division shows the precise strategy used to deal with the issue of talc powder and cancer:
“Our current posture with respect to the sponsorship of talc safety studies has been to initiate studies only as dictated by confrontation. This philosophy, so far, has allowed us to neutralize or hold in check data already generated by investigators who question the safety of talc. The principal advantage for this operating philosophy lies in the fact that we minimize the risk of possible self-generation of scientific data which may be politically or scientifically embarrassing.”
Other examples of Johnson & Johnson hiding information, manipulating studies, and influencing public policy exist. It is one thing to discover that the company’s products may cause cancer. It is another thing entirely to find that the company knew that their products cause cancer and did nothing. Sound familiar?
BIG BUSINESS WILL ALWAYS PUT PROFITS BEFORE PATIENTS.
There’s simply no way around it. A pharmaceutical company worth hundreds of billions of dollars will not willingly admit that their products are harmful. They will not suffer financial loss to make sure their products are safe. And they will not be honest with their employees, customers, or regulators unless they have no other choice.
Johnson & Johnson is a company whose image is based on safety and consumer care. Johnson’s Baby Powder and Shower to Shower are household names, used by families for generations. And as long as we keep buying them, Johnson & Johnson is not concerned about their safety. And that is unacceptable.
The company currently faces 11,700 claims over its talc-based powders, which we hope will shed more light on this issue and force the company to make drastic changes. But the truth is that expecting integrity from big pharma is often a waste of time. We need to be vigilant about what we put in and on our bodies. And we need to demand more.
We can strive for changes in our regulatory bodies – the FDA is riddled with former employees of the pharmaceutical industry who are caring only for the interests of their businesses – and we can vote with our dollars. There are many contributing factors that lead to cancer, and man-made substances are high on the list. We need to take a close look at what we bring into our homes, and we need to hold companies who put lives at risk for better profits accountable for their actions.