In a comprehensive article examining Johnson and Johnson’s continued claims that its Baby Powder is safe in the face of a February jury verdict finding J&J liable for a woman’s ovarian cancer death linked to its talc products, Bloomberg provides revelatory information from the trial. Some of the more shocking new information in the article is about Johnson and Johnson’s intentional choice to target its marketing campaign of the product to African American and Hispanic women during the 1990s, at the same time that it was choosing to brush the ovarian cancer risk under the rug.
According to the Bloomberg article, a company memo dating from the early ’90s acknowledges the “negative publicity” of cancer linkage while also including “a recommendation to ‘investigate ethnic (African-American, Hispanic) opportunities to grow the franchise,’” noting that these women accounted for a high proportion of sales. An added handwritten note says the company planned a print advertising campaign directed to this market.
J&J did not choose to find ways to protect its consumers by focusing on the ovarian cancer risk that it had been made aware was connected to regular genital talc use. The company could have done this by shifting to baby powder made with cornstarch instead of talc, which by 1999 the American Cancer Society would recommend for feminine hygiene as a precaution against the known talc-ovarian cancer association.
J&J also could have added warning labels to talc-containing products, which its supplier Imerys Talc America, then called Luzenac, added in 2006. The 2,000-pound bags of talc it delivers to J&J have safety data sheets that include the warning: “Perineal use of the powder is a possible risk factor for ovarian cancer,” according to Bloomberg.
Instead, Johnson and Johnson in the early ’90s was discussing “opportunities to grow the franchise” and in the early 2000s a task force devoted to improving sales of Shower to Shower was still on the same track. Bloomberg quotes the task force as saying: “African American consumers in particular will be a good target with more of an emotional feeling and talk about reunions among friends, etc., team up with EbonyMagazine. It suggested promotions in churches, beauty salons, and barbershops, and Patti LaBelle or Aretha Franklin as celebrity endorsers.”
The article makes an effort to point out that it’s standard practice for companies to focus on their most loyal customers. “Some people might say, ‘What’s wrong with companies recognizing women of color as important consumers?’ ” Robin Means Coleman, a professor of communications studies and Afro-American Studies at the University of Michigan told Bloomberg. “We do want that. But we do not want companies to market potentially carcinogenic products.”
Marvin Salter, Jaqueline Fox’s son, plaintiff in the February trial that has stirred up all of this attention around Johnson and Johnson, hadn’t been aware of the marketing documents until the trial, according to Bloomberg. “When I heard about it, I was infuriated. And so was the jury,” he told Bloomberg.
His mother said in a deposition before her death a few months before the trial, “I was raised up on it. They was to help you stay fresh and clean. … We ladies have to take care of ourselves.” It was “as normal as using toothpaste or deodorant,” Bloomberg reported.
The article concludes with an interview from a tearful mother of five, who was diagnosed with Stage 3 ovarian cancer in 2013 after two decades of talc use, which she had been raised on as well. She is one of the thousands of women who is suing Johnson and Johnson for its products’ alleged contribution to her cancer and for the company’s negligence in warning her of its risks. She was out of work for five months during her cancer treatments and hysterectomy, lost her health insurance because she exceeded the policy limits before she was able to complete treatments, and eventually had to file bankruptcy.
According to Bloomberg, after hearing about the J&J marketing document, she began crying. “I can’t believe they singled us out….I have five children who depend on me,” she says. “I will never use another J&J product again.”