J&J conspired to cover up talc safety issues for decades, a new lawsuit alleges

In its defense against thousands of lawsuits alleging talc can cause ovarian cancer, Johnson & Johnson has said science is on its side. But a new suit in St. Louis alleges the company has "blatantly lied" for decades about talc safety—and participated in a conspiracy to conceal the truth. 

Filed in St. Louis circuit court on behalf of dozens of women who've suffered from ovarian cancer, the suit claims that numerous studies document a connection between talc and cancer. And it's not just talc implicated in the case, the lawsuit claims.

The mine supplying J&J's talc contains dangerous carcinogens such as asbestos, it says, and the testing methods J&J uses are "incapable" of truly detecting whether the consumer product has been purified to be asbestos-free. 

"Thus, the talc used by defendants to manufacture the products is not now, nor has it ever been, free from asbestos and asbestiform fibers," the lawsuit says. Bloomberg first reported on the filing.

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J&J has repeatedly denied that talc is unsafe and says the products pass its testing as asbestos-free. Johnson & Johnson's baby powder is one of the company's most iconic products.

Submitted by the Holland Law Firm in St. Louis and the Lanier Law Firm in New York City, the suit cites studies from 1971 and 1982, and 22 since then, that have documented "data regarding the association of talc and ovarian cancer." In 1982, ovarian cancer researcher Dr. Daniel Cramer advised a J&J official that the company should include a warning on its product, the attorneys wrote in the filing. 

Still, J&J has always said its product is safe. In a statement to FiercePharma, spokeswoman Carol Goodrich said the FDA "requires specific testing to ensure that cosmetic talcum powder is free of asbestos."

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"We are confident that our talc products are, and always have been, free of asbestos, based on decades of monitoring, testing and regulation," Goodrich continued. "Since 1946 we have required our suppliers to provide the purest quality talc and since 1977 specified that the talc has to be asbestos free. Those standards evolved into multidimensional monitoring of the talc we use, which we continue to maintain today. Historical testing of samples by the FDA, numerous independent laboratories, and numerous independent scientists have all confirmed the absence of asbestos in our talc products.”

In addition to their argument that talc is unsafe, the plaintiffs say J&J and its talc partners have covered up the truth for decades. J&J and other defendants "procured and disseminated false, misleading, and biased information regarding the safety of the products to the public and used influence over governmental and regulatory bodies regarding talc contaminated with asbestos, asbestiform fibers, and other harmful constituents," the attorneys argue. 

In J&J's latest quarterly filing, the drugmaker reported about 4,800 lawsuits alleging harm from routine talc use. Ted Meadows, an attorney for thousands of the plaintiffs, told FiercePharma this summer his team is ready to fight each case in court. J&J might not want to settle because it has built a corporate brand around the consumer product, Meadows said.

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At the time, a J&J spokesperson highlighted the National Cancer Institute’s Physician Data Query Editorial Board's conclusion that the "weight of evidence does not support an association between perineal talc exposure and an increased risk of ovarian cancer."

"We are actively pursuing the appeals process in each of the verdicts in favor of plaintiffs and preparing for additional trials this year," the J&J representative said. "We will continue to defend the safety of Johnson’s baby powder because we are guided by the science.”

The drugmaker has suffered multiple defeats in previous talc litigation, adding up to more than $700 million in verdicts. The company did win one case in St. Louis and convinced a judge to toss two others in New Jersey. Most recently, it submitted an appeal of a $417 million verdict in Los Angeles.

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Before the defeat in Los Angeles, J&J lost four cases in St. Louis totaling $300 million. In those appeals, the company argued a Supreme Court ruling in a Bristol-Myers Squibb case invalidates the verdicts. The Supreme Court found in that case that plaintiffs can't pick venues when suing drugmakers just because drug companies sell products and maintain operations around the country.