Johnson & Johnson says talcum powder's safe despite $100m payout over cancer death

Johnson & Johnson says its popular talc is safe. Photo / File
Johnson & Johnson says its popular talc is safe. Photo / File

Manufacturer Johnson & Johnson is today standing by its popular brand of talcum powder New Zealand families have used for decades.

The statement comes after a jury in the United States ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay ovarian cancer victim Jacqueline Fox US$72 million ($108 million) in damages.

In an audio deposition, the Birmingham, Alabama, native who died at 62, recounted 35 years of using Johnson & Johnson products containing talcum powder, from the pharmaceutical giant's trademark baby powder to its shower-to-shower body powder.

Fox had used them towards feminine hygiene, but believed they ultimately killed her.

Australasian communications manager Mitzi Saitzyk said the company was disappointed with the court result but insisted the product was safe to use.

There were no plans to take the product off shelves.

"The talc used in all our global products is carefully selected and meets the highest quality, purity and compliance standards," she said.

"The recent US verdict goes against decades of sound science proving the safety of talc as a cosmetic ingredient in multiple products, and while we sympathise with the family of the plaintiff, we strongly disagree with the outcome.

"Ovarian cancer is a complex disease with no known cause and the US Food and Drug Administration, National Cancer Institute and Cosmetic Ingredient Review Committee have all concluded there is insufficient evidence linking talc to ovarian cancer."

Fox was diagnosed with an ovarian cancer more than three years ago. She then joined more than 1200 women from across the country suing Johnson & Johnson for failing to warn consumers of the dangers associated with talc, the mineral used in baby powder.

On Monday, her case became the first in which compensation was awarded.

Johnson & Johnson is expected to appeal the verdict. The award, which includes US$10 million in compensatory damages and $62 million in punitive damages - will likely be reduced in appellate courts, Stanford law professor Nora Freeman Engstrom told the Associated Press.

According to the St Louis Post-Dispatch, one male juror and nine female jurors voted in Fox's favour; two men voted against her.

One juror, 50-year-old Jerome Kendrick, told the Post-Dispatch that he was swayed by internal company memos presented at trial.

"They tried to cover up and influence the boards that regulate cosmetics," he said, adding: "They could have at least put a warning label on the box but they didn't. They did nothing."

One memo from a company medical consultant likened ignoring the risks associated with "hygenic" talc use and ovarian cancer to denying the link between smoking cigarettes and cancer - in other words, "'denying the obvious in the face of all evidence to the contrary,'" the Associated Press reported.

Another document noted that sales were declining as more people became aware of the health risks, and included strategies for making blacks and Hispanics the highest users of talcum powder, Onder said, as the Post-Dispatch reported.

Fox was African American.

The New Jersey-based company faces many more lawsuits related to talcum products it has made household names.

Marvin Salter, Fox's son, told the AP that using Johnson & Johnson "became second nature, like brushing your teeth".

But a routine act eventually became insidious, Fox's lawyers argued.

A pathologist found that Fox's ovaries were inflamed from talc, which then turned into cancer.

Studies have associated regular talc use with ovarian cancer for decades, but the American Cancer Society notes that there is no definitive research on whether asbestos-free talc - the kind widely used in consumer products - causes ovarian cancer:

"Findings have been mixed, with some studies reporting a slightly increased risk and some reporting no increase. Many case-control studies have found a small increase in risk. But these types of studies can be biased because they often rely on a person's memory of talc use many years earlier."

- NZ Herald

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