The Dangers of Baby Powder and Possible Ethnic Targeting
While it is meant to eliminate friction against the skin, produce a “clean, classic scent” and has been “dermatologist and allergy tested”, according to their website, Johnson & Johnson’s Baby Powder is meant to create a comfortable feeling to the skin. Yet, this product meant for babies has also been used by many women, particularly African American women to maintain feminine hygiene over the years. The talcum based product may have created a fresh feel for the day, but in the long run, for many women, it may have also been a factor in developing ovarian cancer.
Johnson & Johnson lawyers recently lost a lawsuit when a Missouri court ordered the company to pay $72 million in damages to Jacqueline Fox’s family. Fox, an African American woman who died of ovarian cancer, joined a group of over 1,000 women suing because of cancers related to baby powder and other talcum-based products. These talcum powder lawsuits along with the Baby Powder lawsuits have attorneys fighting against the company’s lack of label warnings, negligence and also conspiracy.
While the talcum powder attorneys and the Baby Powder attorneys continue to fight against these lawsuits, there may be another issue at hand. With the lack of labeling, these products have been constantly used by Black women and Latina women. In her deposition Fox even stated how she was raised on using Baby Powder and sprinkling it in places such as her underwear.
Historically African American women have used baby powder under breasts, on areas close to the vaginal area such as underwear and other areas to stay fresh, fight off sweat and odors. “Like pressing our hair and lotioning our legs, douching and deodorizing vaginas is something black women teach out daughters and sister-friends teach our friends,” Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley, an associate professor of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, wrote in a Time article. She stated that more Black women douche and deodorize in comparison to white women.
She also referenced Michelle Ferranti’s article, “An Odor of Racism: Vaginal Deodorants in African-American Beauty Culture and Advertising” in which Ferranti wrote about how Black woman and their ideas of hygiene and taking extra care of their bodies stem from slavery times when Black people were believed to smell among many other negative stereotypes. Tinsley wrote that not only is racism a factor, but standards put on women by men that “vaginas are rank” also contribute. “Johnson & Johnson and other companies are ready to profit from these myths of the excessive black vagina,” Tinsley wrote. “They’re willing to capitalize on our internalized misogynoir even if we die in the process.”
Only time will tell how these Johnson & Johnson lawsuits will end for the other hundreds of women, but until then, hopefully there will be a better education of the dangers products containing Talc may contain.
By Janeal Downs
When the average person hears about a large verdict, especially against a corporation whom they see as providing helpful goods or services to society, they often wonder what the jury was thinking.
Let’s take talc as an example. Recently, Johnson & Johnson was hit with two large verdicts: $55 million and $72 million. Many people use J&J products and we understand that many people see them as ‘good’.
So why these large verdicts on something as ‘harmless’ as baby powder? As is often the case, the jury gets angry when they find that a company purposely concealed critical information about the safety of a product. In the case of talcum powder, this concealment was made much worse by the marketing of these products containing talc directly to minorities.
The first talcum powder lawsuit was filed in 2009 by a woman from Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Her case was the first one to go to trial.
Her name is Diane Berg, and she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2006 when she was just 49 years old. She used to product for a majority of her life by sprinkling it in her underwear to help with odors. She had no idea that using Johnson & Johnson's baby powder could be so dangerous since there was no warning to be found on its label about any possible cancer risk.
She eventually decided to sue the pharmaceutical giant in order to make others aware of the risks associated with talc powder. In her lawsuit she blamed Johnson & Johnson for gross negligence and fraud. In 2013, Johnson & Johnson offered a settlement deal. She was offered an out of court settlement of $1.3 million if she would drop her case and drop all the accusations she was claiming. But when she realized a major part of their offer was that she had to sign a confidentiality clause, she decided to refuse. She later stated in interviews that what she really cared about was warning people around the world of how dangerous Johnson & Johnson's talc powder really is, and that it caused her cancer. She didn’t want to sign a confidentiality clause that would prevent her from telling anyone else about what happened to her.
Ironically, she ultimately received no monetary compensation for the damages Johnson & Johnson caused her, although the jury did confirm the association between talcum powder and cancer.
Diane Berg's case would serve as the catalyst for the next 2 cases that were filed in St. Louis, where Johnson & Johnson was ordered to pay a total of $127 million in damages to two other families. One of the verdicts found the company liable for negligence, conspiracy, and failure to warn women of the increased cancer risk linked with the use of cosmetic talc in the genital area.
Let's take a look at some of the findings.
From 1986 through 2004 Johnson & Johnson was struggling to revive interest in an important product that had no proven health benefits and suspected health risks. During one of the trials, evidence was uncovered in the form of an internal memo that said “negative publicity from the health community on talc (inhalation, dust, negative doctor endorsement, cancer linkage) continues,” as well as “investigate ethnic (African-American, Hispanic) opportunities to grow the franchise,” noting that these women accounted for a high proportion of talcum powder sales. Later a task force devoted to improving sales of body powder concluded, “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 Ebony Magazine.” This task force memo suggested promotions in churches, beauty salons, and barber shops, even going so far as having Patti LaBelle or Aretha Franklin as celebrity endorsers, though neither singer ever became a spokesperson for the brand. The company thus plied its wares in locales typically associated with black culture. That memo showed the depth of their internal research of how they get into the minds of their customers.
None of this was publicly known until the trial. Once uncovered, understandably, many people were upset by the marketing tactics that were used.
There are simple alternatives to using talc based powder products. Since 1999, the American Cancer Society had suggested that cornstarch products are a good alternative for the genital area. Interestingly, Johnson & Johnson now produces a safer cornstarch-based surrogate which is sold at the same price.
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