Even if Johnson & Johnson prevails in court, its trusted brand could be irreparably damaged.
A new Reuters report says the company has known for years that an amount of asbestos, a known carcinogen, could be found in the talc in its baby powder. The company has denied the claims in print and in court as lawsuits pile up against the manufacturer.
The report cites documents that have come to light in recent litigation.
The evidence of what J&J knew has surfaced after people who suspected that talc caused their cancers hired lawyers experienced in the decades-long deluge of litigation involving workers exposed to asbestos. Some of the lawyers knew from those earlier cases that talc producers tested for asbestos, and they began demanding J&J’s testing documentation.
What J&J produced in response to those demands has allowed plaintiffs’ lawyers to refine their argument: The culprit wasn’t necessarily talc itself, but also asbestos in the talc. That assertion, backed by decades of solid science showing that asbestos causes mesothelioma and is associated with ovarian and other cancers, has had mixed success in court.
Johnson & Johnson has already been losing in court.
In two cases earlier this year – in New Jersey and California – juries awarded big sums to plaintiffs who, like Coker, blamed asbestos-tainted J&J talc products for their mesothelioma.
A third verdict, in St. Louis, was a watershed, broadening J&J’s potential liability: The 22 plaintiffs were the first to succeed with a claim that asbestos-tainted Baby Powder and Shower to Shower talc, a longtime brand the company sold in 2012, caused ovarian cancer, which is much more common than mesothelioma. The jury awarded them $4.69 billion in damages.
J&J vehemently denies the correlation and vows to fight the verdicts. Similar legal pushback helped Monsanto to greatly reduce the legal penalty it faced in a court case alleging its products caused cancer.
“Plaintiffs’ attorneys out for personal financial gain are distorting historical documents and intentionally creating confusion in the courtroom and in the media,” Ernie Knewitz, J&J’s vice president of global media relations, wrote in an emailed response to Reuters’ findings. “This is all a calculated attempt to distract from the fact that thousands of independent tests prove our talc does not contain asbestos or cause cancer. Any suggestion that Johnson & Johnson knew or hid information about the safety of talc is false.”
J&J declined to comment further for this article. For more than two months, it turned down repeated requests for an interview with J&J executives. On Dec. 8, the company offered to make an expert available. It had not done so as of Thursday evening.
However, the reputational damage might already be done for a brand built on caring for families. The day the report was announced, J&J lost 11 percent in stock value, amounting to $45 billion.
The company has tried multiple tactics—while not apologizing—to push back against the Reuters report. It has hired experts to testify in court and has tried to discredit reports of asbestos in its product.
The company defends the safety of its baby powder, saying that it has never contained asbestos and that the claims are based on “junk science.” Johnson & Johnson says that the lawyers in the cases have “cherry-picked” the memos, and that they instead show the company’s focus on safety.
“Johnson & Johnson’s talc has been tested by scientists at multiple entities since the early 1970s up to the present,” said Peter Bicks, a partner at Orrick, one of the law firms representing the company in the lawsuits. “None of these routine tests over the past 50 years detected the presence of asbestos.”
It has even turned to its CEO to calm consumers.
J&J Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Alex Gorsky has pledged to fight on, telling analysts in July: “We remain confident that our products do not contain asbestos.”
Gorsky’s comment, echoed in countless J&J statements, misses a crucial point. Asbestos, like many environmental carcinogens, has a long latency period. Diagnosis usually comes years after initial exposure – 20 years or longer for mesothelioma. J&J talc products today may be safe, but the talc at issue in thousands of lawsuits was sold and used over the past 60 years.
After the report was published, the company attacked the credibility of Reuters itself.
“Simply put, the Reuters story is an absurd conspiracy theory, in that it apparently has spanned over 40 years, orchestrated among generations of global regulators, the world’s foremost scientists and universities, leading independent labs, and J&J employees themselves,” the company said in a statement.
Reuters stands by its story.
On social media, users have marveled at the scale of Johnson & Johnson’s potential liability.
I would like to see coverage and analysis about how many infants and women were endangered by Johnson & Johnson.
How many are known to have been made sick?
How many exposed?
Because…it’s A LOT.
A pulverized KNOWN CARCINOGEN was marketed for decades for INFANT CARE. https://t.co/rJ0Vn6Q3oV
— Leah McElrath (@leahmcelrath) December 17, 2018
Others decried J&J outright:
🤢 This company makes me sick. Aimed so much at kids and they still don’t give a damn. Also FYI, Aveeno & Desitin is also by Johnson & Johnson 🙅🏼 https://t.co/QpBnZUMgV0
— 𝔹𝕝𝕠𝕠𝕞𝕚𝕟𝕘 𝕄𝕒𝕞𝕒 ❀ (@LovelyVixen_) December 16, 2018
Still others cheered its precipitous stock price drop:
Good. May it plunge forever. May Johnson & Johnson be doomed forever. pic.twitter.com/Pb10gVRddY
— YonSolitaryHighland (@YonSolitary) December 16, 2018
Many called for increased regulation of large corporations:
They knew and the still marketed the product to literal BABIES. Tell me again how we don’t need regulations on big business? https://t.co/XvgKRwzsnl
— Hillary DePiano (@HillaryDePiano) December 15, 2018
Some consumers have a long memory and brought up other J&J products that have harmed customers.
As you read that Johnson & Johnson knew about asbestos in their baby powder for decades and never reported it, remember their vaginal mesh implants & hip prostheses that have also all harmed consumers…and be aware of the many brand names of J&J consumer products… (1/2)
— Melissa_Ottery (@MelissaOttery) December 15, 2018
What do you think of Johnson and Johnson’s crisis response, Ragan/PR Daily readers?