Johnson & Johnson will begin using cornstarch in all of the baby powder it sells around the world, moving away from the talcum powder that has put the popular product at the center of tens of thousands of lawsuits filed by customers.
The company stopped selling its talc-based baby powder in North America in 2020 after recalling some bottles in 2019, but will stop selling the product worldwide by 2023, it said Thursday. Johnson & Johnson said it already sold baby powder with cornstarch in countries around the world.
More than 40,000 lawsuits, many of them from women with ovarian cancer or mesothelioma, have accused Johnson & Johnson of selling talcum powder to babies, while aware of its link to health risks, such as possible asbestos contamination.
The company said the decision to switch to cornstarch is part of an ongoing review of its portfolio and would help simplify its product offering and meet “evolving global trends”. It also reiterated its position on baby powder safety: “We stand firmly behind decades of independent scientific analysis by medical experts around the world confirming that Johnson’s talcum-based baby powder is safe, contains no asbestos and does not cause cancer. “
Johnson & Johnson has been selling cornstarch baby powder for decades, developing the version of the product in 1980 after consumer advocates raised concerns that talc contained trace amounts of asbestos, a carcinogen. The company did not immediately respond to questions about how much talcum 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 organization Women’s Voices for the Earth. She noted that cornstarch was inexpensive, easy to obtain and free of the “toxic profile” of talc 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 just changed the market. They took it off the higher end stores but kept it in 99 cent stores.”
In April, Johnson & Johnson shareholders voted against a proposal to halt sales of talcum powder in global markets such as Asia and South America — a request sparked by concerns about the company’s legal and reputational problems. Last year, the company faced $1.6 billion in talc-related litigation costs and had $3.9 billion set aside the previous year. Reputation-tracking firms said Johnson & Johnson’s once-pristine name among consumers had been tarnished by allegations surrounding talc.
Talc-based products account for a small portion of Johnson & Johnson’s consumer product sales, including plasters and Listerine mouthwashes, but are responsible for a huge portion of the legal problems. In one talk case, Johnson & Johnson was ordered to pay $4.69 billion to 22 plaintiffs in one of the largest personal injury lawsuits ever.
The company has attempted to limit its legal exposure through an elaborate corporate pirouette known as the Texas Two-Step. In February, a New Jersey bankruptcy judge authorized the company to proceed with the maneuver, which takes its name from a foxtrot-inspired dance style and its intricate structure from a quirk of Texas business law.
The reorganization process, which involves segregating and foreclosure of assets from creditors, has only been attempted a handful of times since its inception in 1989, mostly by companies faced with asbestos exposure claims. If successful, it could protect Johnson & Johnson from billions of dollars in legal claims, while also providing an escape route for other companies inundated with personal injury lawsuits.
Gambit has brought Johnson & Johnson talk lawsuits to a halt and may leave claimants, some of whom are extremely ill, a smaller pot of money for payouts. The plaintiffs’ lawyers have appealed to try and stop the maneuver and said the next hearing is scheduled for September.
“After decades of selling talc-based products that the company knew could cause deadly cancers in unsuspecting women and men, J.&J. finally did the right thing,” said Leigh O’Dell, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys.