J&J Faces Criminal Probe over Asbestos in Baby Powder
The U.S. Justice Department is conducting a criminal investigation to determine if Johnson & Johnson misled the public about the possible presence of asbestos fibers and the resulting cancer risk in its talcum powder.
According to Bloomberg News, a federal grand jury is examining whether company officials knew and denied their product once contained trace amounts of the toxic mineral.
An ongoing regulatory investigation and thousands of lawsuits have coincided with the latest probe of the pharmaceutical giant.
Johnson & Johnson is the world’s largest manufacturer of talc products, including its iconic Baby Powder.
The company announced in February, in its annual report to investors and the Securities and Exchange Commission, that it has been subpoenaed by the Department of Justice as part of an investigation.
Its report, though, did not include whether the subpoenas were for criminal or civil matters. Bloomberg broke the news that the probe involved criminal charges and a U.S. grand jury.
Department of Justice officials declined comment.
Johnson & Johnson Claims Nothing New
Johnson & Johnson issued a statement that the company was continuing to cooperate with the Department of Justice investigation.
“The key documents on this issue have been publicly available for months on our website. The documents establish that Johnson’s Baby Powder does not contain asbestos or cause cancer,” the statement said. “The implication that there has been a new development in this matter is flatly wrong.”
Johnson & Johnson, which is based in New Brunswick, New Jersey, has maintained for many years that its talc does not cause cancer, citing 40 years of medical studies that show it is free from asbestos or any other carcinogen.
Other studies performed using different testing methods have shown trace amounts of asbestos in select samples of talc.
Questions about the safety of the product have multiplied, and J&J has been sued more than 13,000 times for failing to inform consumers that its baby powder contained asbestos, which is the primary cause of malignant mesothelioma.
The majority of the lawsuits involve ovarian cancer.
Some of those lawsuits, which began in 2016, have revealed decades-old internal memos from company scientists expressing fears that the talc was “a severe health hazard,” and could lead to legal liability.
More than a dozen juries, across several states, have determined that Johnson & Johnson products have contained at least small amounts of asbestos and led to cancer.
Talc, which is used in many consumer products, is a mineral used to absorb moisture. It is considered the softest naturally occurring mineral in the world. Too often though, it is found and mined in close proximity to asbestos, which causes the contamination.
Plaintiffs Awarded $5 Billion Already
More than $5 billion has been awarded to plaintiffs involving Johnson & Johnson Baby Powder and Shower to Shower, another talc product that was sold to Valeant Pharmaceuticals in 2012.
Earlier in 2019, a Superior Court jury in Oakland, California, awarded $29.4 million to Teresa Leavitt, who claimed talc from Johnson & Johnson products led to her mesothelioma cancer.
Other liability cases have resulted in wins for Johnson & Johnson, hung juries or cases thrown out by judges. Many of the cases won by plaintiffs are still on appeal.
The addition of a criminal investigation, which could take years to resolve, is likely to delay settlement in many of the pending civil claims.
New evidence, or criminal testimony, could uncover facts that advance civil cases. There is no certainty, though, that the investigation will result in any charges.
The criminal investigation uncovered last week is expected to focus on whether public denials by officials at Johnson & Johnson that their products ever contained asbestos were truthful.
J&J Contradicted Claims
A report in 2018 by Reuters News Service detailed Johnson & Johnson internal documents, memos and conversations that contradicted previous claims that its Baby Powder and Shower to Shower products were completely free of asbestos.
The report documented efforts by Johnson & Johnson officials to hinder regulators trying to more closely monitor traces of asbestos found in talc and influence scientific research on its health effects.
State court juries in California, New Jersey and Kentucky were expected to begin hearing evidence in new trials this week involving Johnson & Johnson cosmetic talc products.
Those cases each involve claims that products led to mesothelioma cancer.
Although Baby Powder is a core brand of Johnson & Johnson, it accounts for a fraction of its annual revenue and an estimated 10% of all pending personal injury lawsuits, according to a recent stockholder report.