The issue of the possible dangers posed by talc-based products has become rather complicated over the past few months. As a result, we wanted to take a moment to review the current goings-on, touch on the multiple facets that are now involved, and offer a bit of analysis.
What began as questions over talc’s culpability in causing ovarian cancer has since become something so much larger. And, the things we’ve learned about Johnson & Johnson’s efforts toward controlling that information has done little to quiet concerns over the safety of products that have been a part of American households for well-over a century.
Last year, it looked as though things might finally be coming to some sort of resolution. That was when a jury awarded a group of 22 women a stunning $4.69 billion verdict over claims that the talc found in feminine hygiene products like Shower to Shower was causing them to develop ovarian cancer. The verdict was widely regarded as a message from the public to giant corporations like J&J: provide us with products that you know are safe for us to use or face severe consequences.
Unfortunately, it is highly likely that the award will be heavily reduced or even negated entirely. While punitive damages do exist for the purpose of rendering punishment, such awards must still fall within the bounds of what is considered to be “reasonable.” Under such a definition, the majority of high-dollar verdicts are generally reduced or overturned, and it will be up to future judges to determine whether the J&J verdict will follow that pattern.
As the battle over talc and ovarian cancer was being fought, new concerns began growing over whether the process used to mine talc was able to adequately separate that talc from the asbestos particles that were thought to come along with it. Lawsuits began emerging claiming that asbestos present in products like Johnson & Johnson’s Baby Powder was causing cases of mesothelioma, but the corporation was swift to vehemently dismiss those claims and to do so in no uncertain terms.
An investigation by Reuters turned those repeated denials on their heads as internal documents showed that J&J had known about the presence of asbestos in its talc for decades and went to significant lengths to downplay and even deny the fact. The report rocked the world’s largest healthcare products manufacturer and erased $40 billion in market value from the company the day it was released.
J&J considers its Baby Powder product to be a cornerstone of the company – not because of the revenue it generates (Baby Powder sales are actually a tiny portion of J&J revenue) – but because it is vital to a corporate image of caring and trustworthiness. While the impact of reduced Baby Powder sales would be negligible, the impact of a substantial loss of the public’s trust could be monumental.
Put all of this together and it becomes a bit easier to see how this issue came to be and why every decision made by a judge or jury can have massive implications on its future direction. Sending messages to America’s corporations is important. However, the protection of the public as a whole should also be part of an overall strategy that works to improve safety for everyone.