Johnson & Johnson will begin using cornstarch in all the baby powder it sells around the world, shifting away from the talc that put the popular product at the center of tens of thousands of lawsuits filed by customers.
The company suspended North American sales of its talcum-based baby powder in 2020 after recalling some bottles in 2019, but will stop selling the product globally in 2023, it said Thursday. Johnson & Johnson said it was already selling cornstarch baby powder in countries around the world.
More than 40,000 lawsuits, many from women with ovarian cancer or mesothelioma, have accused Johnson & Johnson of selling talcum powder for baby powder while aware of its links to health risks, such as possible asbestos contamination.
The company said the decision to move to corn starch was part of an ongoing evaluation of its portfolio and would help simplify its product offering and meet “evolving global trends.” It also reiterated its stance on baby powder safety: “We stand behind the decades of independent scientific analysis by medical experts worldwide confirming that talc-based Johnson’s Baby Powder is safe, asbestos-free and cancer-free.”
Johnson & Johnson has sold cornstarch baby powder for decades, developing its version of the product in 1980 after consumer advocates raised concerns that talc contained traces of asbestos, a cancer-causing substance. The company did not immediately respond to questions about how much talcum baby powder was left on the market.
“It’s kind of a no-brainer solution,” said Alex Scranton, director of science and research at the environmental group Women’s Voices for the Earth. She noted that cornstarch was cheap, easy to obtain and free of talc’s “toxic profile” and concerns about asbestos contamination.
Women’s Voices for the Earth was one of nearly 200 organizations that participated in a campaign, led by Black Women for Wellness, to pressure Johnson & Johnson to remove talc-based products from shelves worldwide.
Janette Robinson Flint, executive director of Black Women for Wellness, said she was celebrating the news.
“We took on a giant company and we fought and we won,” she said. “When they said they were taking it off the market in North America, they weren’t really taking it off the market – they were just changing the market. They took it out of high-end stores but kept it in 99-cent stores.”
In April, Johnson & Johnson shareholders voted against a proposal to stop sales of the talcum powder baby powder in global markets such as Asia and South America – a request that had been driven by concerns about the company’s legal and reputational problems. Last year, the company faced $1.6 billion in talc-related litigation expenses and had set aside $3.9 billion the year before. Reputation-tracking firms said Johnson & Johnson’s once-pristine name had been tarnished among consumers by the talc allegations.
Talc-based products account for a small portion of Johnson & Johnson’s sales of consumer products, which also include Band-Aid bandages and Listerine mouthwash, but are responsible for a huge portion of the legal headache. In one talc case, Johnson & Johnson was ordered to pay $4.69 billion to 22 plaintiffs in one of the largest personal injury verdicts ever.
The company has attempted to limit its legal exposure via an elaborate corporate stunt known as the Texas Two-Step. In February, a New Jersey bankruptcy judge approved the company to proceed with the maneuver, which takes its name from a foxtrot-inspired dance style and derives its convoluted structure from a quirk of Texas business law.
The reorganization process, which involves splitting up assets and sealing them off from creditors, has been tried only a handful of times since it was conceived in 1989, mostly by companies facing asbestos exposure claims. If successful, it could shield Johnson & Johnson from billions of dollars in legal claims, while demonstrating an escape route for other companies inundated with personal injury lawsuits.
The gambit has set the Johnson & Johnson talc lawsuits on hold and can leave claimants, some of whom are extremely ill, with a smaller pot of funds for payouts. The plaintiffs’ lawyers have filed an appeal to try to stop the maneuver and said the next hearing is scheduled for September.
“After decades of selling talc-based products the company knew could cause fatal cancer in unsuspecting women and men, J.&J. has finally done the right thing,” said Leigh O’Dell, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys.