Civil right attorney Ben Crump and tort attorney Paul Napoli filed a lawsuit on behalf of the National Council of Negro Women against Johnson & Johnson in New Jersey on July 27, alleging the pharmaceutical company marketed talcum-based baby powder to Black women despite links to ovarian cancers.
The NCNW was founded in 1935 and advocates on behalf of Black women and their families.
“This company, through its words and images, told Black women that we were offensive in our natural state and needed to use their products to stay fresh,” said NCNW executive director Janice Matthews. “Generations of Black women believed them and made it our daily practice to use their products in ways that put us at risk of cancer — and we taught our daughters to do the same. Shame on Johnson and Johnson.”
According to the lawsuit, the company made Black women “a central part” of its business strategy but did not warn them about the dangers of using its products. The purpose of the lawsuit is for a court to compel the company to inform Black women who used the products of their risks so that they will undergo cancer screenings.
“I would be remiss if I did not say exactly what this lawsuit is about. It is about the lives of our grandmothers, our mothers, our sisters, our daughters, our nieces, and our wives, and how they were sinisterly targeted by Johnson and Johnson,” Crump said at a news conference Tuesday announcing the suit. “This multi-billion-dollar corporation, their corporate executives know about the link between talcum powder and ovarian cancer.”
The company has been sued before over allegations its talcum products caused users to suffer from illnesses like ovarian cancer and mesothelioma. Although The New York Times reports that Johnson & Jonson has allocated $4 billion to fight more than 25,000 lawsuits, the company also is considering splitting off all of its talcum suit liabilities into a separate company and having that company file bankruptcy to reduce payouts, Reuters reported this month.
However, the company has denied allegations that it targeted Black women and said its marketing campaigns are “multicultural and inclusive.”
The company said in a statement, “The accusations being made against our company are false, and the idea that our Company would purposefully and systematically target a community with bad intentions is unreasonable and absurd.”
According to the lawsuit, an internal presentation from 2006 suggested the company market its powder products, which had been lagging in sales, toward “high propensity consumers” such as Black women, who were more likely to use the product than other ethnic groups at the time.
The company later hired a firm that handed out 100,000 gift bags containing powder products at churches and other locations in Chicago, started a radio campaign in the South targeting “curvy southern women” and considered signing Patti LaBelle or Aretha Franklin as a spokesperson, according to the suit. The suit also cites a 2019 Reuters study which found that half of the company’s promotions budget for baby powder was “directed at overweight and minority women” between 2008 and 2010.
Johnsen & Johnson has denied its products cause cancer although a Missouri judge included in a ruling last year that plaintiffs’ illnesses were a result of asbestos in the company’s talcum products.
The talcum products first came under scrutiny in 1971 when British researchers found ovarian tumors with talcum particles embedded inside.
Dozens of studies have shown that women who use talcum powder “are about 30 percent more likely to be diagnosed with ovarian cancer than women who have not,” according to the National Center for Health Research.
In October of 2020, the FDA announced it found asbestos in a bottle of Johnson’s Baby Power and the company recalled a single lot of baby power in response.
May 2020, Johnson & Johnson had announced it would be withdrawing its talc-based baby powder from the U.S. and Canada, although existing inventory would run until sold out. The company continues to claim the talcum power in its products does not contain asbestos.
At Tuesday’s press conference, victims spoke about family members they’d lost. Lydia Huston said her mother died of ovarian cancer in 2014 after she had used talcum power as a regular part of her routine for more than 35 years.
“We had a routine and it involves hygiene, a very clean home and a very clean body,” she said. “And just like deodorant, soap, lotion, and toothpaste, talcum powder was a part of the daily routine that she had for over 35 years.”
In a statement, the company empathized with those who had lost loved ones but denied their products cause cancer.
“We empathize with anyone suffering from cancer and understand that people are looking for answers. We believe those answers can be better understood through science — and decades of independent scientific testing by medical experts around the world has confirmed that our products are safe, do not contain asbestos, and do not cause cancer,” Johnson & Johnson told ABC News in a statement Tuesday.