Double Standards: Toxic Talc Banned at Home, On Sale Abroad
Under the cover of the Covid-19 pandemic, pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson (J&J) issued a statement saying it would be withdrawing its iconic talc-based baby powder from sale in North America. The timing of J&Js announcement was almost certainly deliberate; as public attention remained focused on efforts to tackle the coronavirus, corporate spin doctors could have hoped this news would have stayed below the radar. Georgetown University Associate Professor of Marketing Christie Nordhielm one-time advisor to Johnson & Johnson1 agreed that the timing was significant, telling a journalist that: Its a nice time to quietly do it it will minimise the reputational hit.2 Alas, things did not turn out as the company might have hoped. The news about J&Js desertion of its signature product which had been in constant production since 1894 and was sold worldwide was reported not only in the US and Canada but throughout the world with articles appearing in the UK, Spain, Portugal, Italy, France, Brazil, Vietnam, Malaysia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Ghana and elsewhere.3
In a corporate briefing document, J&J discounted the significance of its decision saying that sales of the talc-based baby powder accounted for a mere 0.5% of the companys total US consumer health business. Whether the financial loss can be as easily absorbed as is claimed, there can be no question that dumping a product which was one of the most well-known global brands was a drastic but almost inevitable step, taking into account the federal investigation into whether it [J&J] lied to the public about the risks of cancer from talc powders,4 the tsunami of personal injury litigation the company faced and the publication of scathing exposes by Reuters and the New York Times. While a statement issued on May 19, 2020 asserted that the action was taken as part of a portfolio assessment related to Covid-19,5 a J&J spokesperson admitted that there had been a dramatic fall in North American demand due to misinformation around the safety of the product and a constant barrage of litigation advertising.6
Once existing inventory of the talc-based baby powder runs out, only cornstarch-based baby powder which had been produced by J&J for decades but never gained the popularity of the original will be sold in North America. Following a well-established marketing playbook, the company intends to continue selling the suspect talc-based baby powder in other markets where theres significantly higher demand, and where consumers are not confused by misleading litigation advertising.7
Commenting on this decision, grassroots activist Mohit Gupta from the Occupational and Environment Health Network of India said:
Johnson & Johnsons talc-based baby powder is sold in India and is very popular. In fact, it has a dominant share in Indias very lucrative market for baby products. It is very shameful that the company has decided to continue sales in India as if Indian lives dont matter. This is yet one more example of corporations putting profit before the lives of people. Instead of replacing the toxic baby powder with one free of asbestos in India, as they are doing in North America, they are just pushing sales of this hazardous product in a market with weak regulatory mechanisms, few testing guidelines and low consumer awareness. Its not that consumers are confused, but rather that they have not been made aware of the problems associated with the use of the talc-based baby powder. Failure of manufacturers to warn potential users of such hazards is a crime but I cannot imagine Johnson & Johnson putting labels on the cannisters of baby powder stating that this product is no longer sold in US and Canada because of health concerns.
Although India is a key market for J&J, its cornstarch-based baby powder remains unavailable. The company manufactures the original baby powder in India and also exports it to neighboring countries. In recent years, questions over the safety of J&Js baby powder have been raised by the Central Drugs Standard Control Organization Indias drug regulator and the Indian Toxicological Research Institute as well as by public health and medical experts such as DK Srinivas of the Jawaharlal Institute of Postgraduate Medical Education & Research.8
Confirming the popularity of J&Js talc-based baby powder in Brazil, ban asbestos activist Fernanda Giannasi was scathing in her condemnation of J&Js double standards saying:
The fact that this deadly product has been withdrawn from sale will protect the lives of generations of North Americans; it is a tragedy that the company took so long to act. I am appalled, however, that the lives of Brazilians are of so little import to this healthcare colossus that it will continue selling its toxic talc here when the use of this product can and has caused lung cancers, ovarian cancers and mesotheliomas. The cowardliness of Johnson & Johnson announcing its amoral and inadmissible marketing strategy at a time when our country is engulfed in a disaster of unquantifiable proportions is an abomination.
In an email received on May 22, 2020 from Professor Domyung Paek from the School of Public Health in Seoul, he verified the availability and popularity of J&Js talc-based baby powder in Korea and deplored the companys actions saying: The current attitude of J&J shows typical disregard for those whose voices are absent or weak and highlights the prioritization of corporate profits over everything else.
Information received to date has established the availability via retail or online outlets of J&J talc-based baby powder in Brazil, Korea, India, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Nepal, Japan, Australia and the UK; consumer groups, public health campaigners and asbestos victims groups in these and other countries are currently pursuing enquiries about Johnson & Johnsons baby powder marketing strategies. On May 22, 2020, the Consumers Association of Penang urged Malaysias Ministry of Health to ban talcum powder and talc-based products and advised consumers to use powder which is made from corn or rice flour. Mothers are advised to use ointments instead of medicated powders for rashes in babies.9 In Vietnam, the Ministry of Healths Drug Administration which has commissioned tests on baby powder samples on multiple occasions asked J&J to submit a report on the discrepancy in its regional marketing schemes.10 In Rwanda, the Food and Drugs Authority is investigating J&Js talc-based baby powder following concerns raised in the US, Canada and elsewhere over the products safety.11 In a March 25, 2020 email to the companys headquarters in Japan, Sugio Furuya Coordinator of the Asian Ban Asbestos Network condemned the companys double standards for withdrawing talc-based baby powder from markets in the US and Canada but continuing to sell it elsewhere, He called on the company: to discontinue [the sale of] talc-based products not only in North America but also in other parts of the world including Japan.
A press statement issued on May 25, 2020 by a coalition of groups from Asia, Europe and Latin America concluded as follows:
Human beings are placed in mortal danger by exposure to asbestos-contaminated baby powder just as they are by exposure to asbestos-containing building products If J&J fails to withdraw sales of the talc-based baby powder, then national governments, regional authorities and intergovernmental organizations must act unilaterally to prevent further deaths.12
May 28, 2020
1 NYU/Stern. Christie Nordhielm.
2 Johnson & Johnson to stop selling talc baby powder in US, Canada. May 20, 2020.
3 J&J to sell baby powder in UK despite stopping US sales. May 22, 2020.
4 Levin, M. Johnson & Johnson to halt North American sales of talc-based Johnsons baby powder. May 22, 2020.
See also: Oversight Subcommittees Year-Long Investigation Leads to Johnson & Johnson Discontinuing Talc-based Baby Powder. May 19, 2020.
5 Johnson & Johnson Consumer Health Announces Discontinuation of Talc-based Johnsons Baby Powder in U.S. and Canada. May 19, 2020.
6 Witkowski, W. J&J pulls sale of talc-based baby powder in North America. May 19, 2020.
7 Kuchler, H. Johnson & Johnson stops selling talc-based baby powder. May 19, 2020.
8 Pilla, V. Johnson & Johnson baby talc powder: Should North American market pullout be a concern for Indian authorities? May 21, 2020.
9 Consumers Association of Penang. CAP: Ban talcum powder and talc-based products. May 22, 2020.
10 Johnson & Johnson dừng bán phấn rôm ở Mỹ, Canada: Bộ Y tế yêu cầu hãng báo cáo [Johnson & Johnson stop selling talcum powder in the US, Canada: The Ministry of Health requires the company to report it]. May 21, 2020.
11 Iribagiza, G. Rwanda investigates safety of talc baby powder. May 22, 2020.
12 Death, Duplicity and Double Standards. May 25, 2020.