By Jefferey Jaxen

Johnson and Johnson is a longstanding American multinational corporation founded in 1886. But looking back at the harmful legacy of many J&J products, an observer can see how the brand’s image has become increasingly tainted. The public has gradually grown to see the company’s profits-over-people corporate paradigm. 

News broke last week that J&J would discontinue its North American sales of baby powder made with talc, a product at the center of nearly 20,000 lawsuits filed by cancer patients.

The company said it would wind down sales over the next few months. Existing bottles will be sold by retailers until they run out. Baby powder made with cornstarch will remain available, and talc-based baby powder will continue to be sold in other parts of the world according to the company. 

Why is the termination of J&J’s flagship product a momentous and symbolic event for the public?

If you were only paying attention to J&J’s press release, you might think that “Demand for talc-based Johnson’s Baby Powder in North America has been declining due in large part to changes in consumer habits and fueled by misinformation around the safety of the product and a constant barrage of litigation advertising.” Or so writes the company. 

In reality, however, J&J’s public messaging was myopic and insulting.  Perhaps it always was, while attempting to downplay the damaging truth around its talc product. With talc’s commercial death, so goes the faux deceptive reasoning J&J has used to shield itself and hide the human suffering the product has caused.   

For over a century, J&J promoted its baby powder as pure and gentle enough for babies’ bottoms. It was a symbol of its corporate commitment to family health—but that’s all gone now. That’s because the public has learned that behind the scenes, something far more nefarious was at play: An American corporation desperate to grow its profits at any cost.  

In late 2018, J&J lost a motion to reverse a $4.7B verdict to 22 women who blamed their ovarian cancer on carcinogenic asbestos found in the company’s Baby Powder and other talc products. The original verdict sparked the company’s biggest financial blow in a decade. The judge in that case stated:

“[S]ubstantial evidence was adduced at trial of particularly reprehensible conduct on the part of defendants, including that defendants knew of the presence of asbestos in products that they knowingly targeted for sale to mothers and babies, knew of the damage their products caused, and misrepresented the safety of these products for decades.”

The discovery process forced J&J to hand over thousands of pages of company memos, internal reports and other confidential documents with lawyers. 

A Reuters examination of those documents, as well as deposition and trial testimony, shows that from at least 1971 to the early 2000s, J&J’s raw talc and finished powders sometimes tested positive for small amounts of asbestos. Reuters also showed how company executives, mine managers, scientists, doctors and lawyers fretted over the problem. They also discussed how to address the problem without disclosing it to regulators or the public.

The documents also depict J&J’s successful efforts to manipulate science and influence U.S. regulators’ plans to limit asbestos in cosmetic talc products. J&J was also caught targeting scientists and doctors critical of their tainted talc.

In many ways, J&J’s playbook walked lockstep with Big Tobacco’s treachery. Big Tobacco created the playbook later implemented by Monsanto and opioid manufactures to obfuscate the human damage caused by their products.  

Researchers began linking talcum powder to ovarian cancer in the 1970s. Internal J&J documents show the company was aware of those studies.

Jim Onder, attorney for the plaintiff in 2018’s $55 million St. Louis settlement (later overturned on appeal) case stated:

The evidence is real clear that Johnson & Johnson has known about the dangers associated with talcum powder for over 30 years. Instead of giving a warning, they targeted the groups most at risk for developing ovarian cancer, specifically marketing to overweight women, blacks and Hispanics.

It wasn’t just talc. It was a corporate culture of deception to hide real human suffering and needless deaths. Johnson & Johnson has paid out a lot over the years.

In 2013 J&J agreed to pay $2.2 billion to settle a decade-long criminal and civil investigation by the Department of Justice into allegations the company promoted powerful psychiatric drugs for unapproved uses in children, seniors and disabled patients.

In 2019, J&J was hit again, this time with an $8B [later reduced to $6.8B] Risperdal verdict. The FDA had prohibited J&J’s salespeople from trying to promote Risperdal to doctors to treat children because of its damaging side effects, including hormonal disorders. Yet that didn’t stop Johnson & Johnson!

The company was also not allowed to promote Risperdal to treat the elderly, except for the most serious psychotic disorders. Risperdal was thought to cause strokes, diabetes and other ailments in that population. Yet, once again, that didn’t stop Johnson & Johnson!

The lawsuit exposed documents that proved J&J had encouraged doctors to prescribe the drug without warning of its risks. Johnson & Johnson emails, sales training manuals and business plans revealed that the company organized special sales units illegally targeting doctors who treated the elderly and children. State mental institutions treating children, whose drugs would be paid for by Medicaid, were targeted, too.

In August 2019, J&J was found guilty by an Oklahoma court for helping fuel the state’s opioid epidemic. J&J was found to have aggressively marketed painkillers and, in collaboration with poppy growers in Tasmania, supplied 60 percent of the opiate ingredients that drug companies used for opioids like oxycodone. 

Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter filed suit in 2017. Oklahoma alleged several drug companies created a “public nuisance” through deceptive marketing to create an epidemic of abuse. Hunter said J&J acted like a “drug kingpin.”

J&J is hardly unique in its crimes and abuse. But in the instance of their baby powder product, they were finally caught and forced to forfeit it. Other corporations have buried secrets that will also soon be discovered. 

The real question is why do people continue to trust the serial criminals whose tentacles reach into our communities, our houses and our families? 

Why is science overrun by corporate monied interests in favor of product protection, rather than the objective investigations and pure methods at the core of its discipline? 

And when it comes to the big, ongoing frauds and damage by lucrative products, why does it take regulatory agencies decades to properly regulate these companies’ harms when they are so easy to see?