Johnson & Johnson’s Baby Powder and Shower to Shower were household staples among Krystal Kim’s family and friends when she was growing up in New Jersey. Kim played baseball as a teenager, she said, and her mother told her to apply Baby Powder to avoid being “the stinky girl.”
“Every time I took a shower, I put Baby Powder on,” recalled Kim, who was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2014 and is now in remission. “I put it on my panties, on my clothes, everywhere.”
Kim, a 53-year-old African-American, has been one of 22 plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit against Johnson & Johnson, contesting that the talcum powder-based products the company sold contained asbestos that gave them cancer.
The lawsuit resulted in a jury verdict last summer of $4.69 billion against J&J. The company is appealing.
In a just-released report, the news service Reuters is now exposing how J&J marketed cancer-causing products to African-American women for years.
KNOWN CANCER RISK
J&J knew for decades that small amounts of asbestos had occasionally been found in its raw talc and in Baby Powder and Shower to Shower, based on test results from the early 1970s to the early 2000s – information it did not disclose to regulators or the public, according to a previous Reuters report. J&J has sold Baby Powder continuously since 1894.
Many of the ovarian cancer lawsuits have blamed the disease on perineal use of J&J cosmetic talcs – a claim supported by some studies showing an association between such use and increased cancer risk. The most recent cases have alleged that J&J’s talc products contained asbestos, long a known carcinogen. Some plaintiffs claim to have contracted mesothelioma from breathing the powder.
In 2006, an arm of the World Health Organization began classifying cosmetic talc such as Baby Powder as “possibly carcinogenic” when women used it as a genital antiperspirant and deodorant, as many had been doing for years. Talc supplier Luzenac America Inc. started including that information on its shipments to J&J and other customers. J&J, however, didn’t share that warning with customers.
TARGET BLACK WOMEN
By 2006, the company was recognizing that “consumers do not see a need for powder,” according to a sales presentation that year. Baby Powder shipments had been “stagnating” in recent years, the presentation said, and it was essential to “find a new business model” that “strategically and efficiently targets high propensity consumers.”
Those groups, according to the presentation: African-Americans, nearly 60 percent of whom used Baby Powder by this time, compared to about 30 percent for the overall population; overweight people; and fitness-conscious people looking to lose weight.
The “right place” to focus, according to a 2006 internal J&J marketing presentation, was “under developed geographical areas with hot weather, and higher AA population,” the “AA” referring to African-Americans.
“Powder is still considered a relevant product among AA consumers,” the presentation said. “This could be an opportunity.”
In the following years, J&J turned those proposals into action. It distributed Baby Powder samples through churches and beauty salons in African-American and Hispanic neighborhoods, ran digital and print promotions with weight-loss and wellness company Weight Watchers and launched a $300,000 radio advertising campaign in a half-dozen markets aiming to reach “curvy Southern women 18-49 skewing African American.”
In 2008, J&J sought proposals for an “African American agency” to develop marketing campaigns for the company’s baby products line. A document sent to prospective agencies summed up the situation: “Johnson’s Baby Oil and Baby Powder products, while traditionally used only on babies, are today primarily consumed by adult AA women for use on themselves.” One way to reverse the brand’s decline, it said, was by “speaking to AA consumers with a more relevant message with the most effective media vehicles.”
The company contracted with a North Carolina marketing firm, Segmented Marketing Services Inc., which says it specializes in targeted promotions to “ethnic consumers.” The firm would distribute 100,000 gift bags containing Baby Powder and other Johnson’s baby products in African-American and Hispanic neighborhoods in Chicago, according to a contract with J&J.
J&J also launched campaigns to boost sales of Baby Powder to “curvy Southern women” and athletic adults who want to smell fresh, according to company documents. It advertised in Weight Watchers magazine and offered promotions through the Lane Bryant clothing chain for plus-size women and Curves, a women’s fitness and weight-loss franchise. Marketing plans also included ads to run in Southern Living magazine and during the Style Network show “Ruby,” a reality TV series that documented an obese Georgia woman on a mission to lose weight.
A 2009 presentation laying out the “Powder media plan” highlights that it will reach 31 million people “in the South (hot climates/overweight states),” and that “43% of our plan will focus on the top 10 overweight states in the nation.”
These are only a few examples of J&J’s decades-long efforts to offset declining Baby Powder sales amid rising concern about the health effects of talc, based on a Reuters review of years of J&J print, radio and digital advertising campaigns and thousands of pages of internal marketing documents and email correspondence.
In 2013, a jury found J&J negligent in the first case ever to claim that regular use of Baby Powder for feminine hygiene caused ovarian cancer. The jury didn’t award monetary damages, but the verdict spawned a cascade of similar lawsuits.
A lawsuit filed in Mississippi in 2014 alleged Johnson and Johnson failed to warn consumers of its products’ health risks and used a “racially targeted strategy” to continue its sales, which the company denies. In response to Reuters’ questioning, a Johnson and Johnson spokesperson said suggesting the company “targeted a particular group with a potentially harmful product is incredibly offensive and patently false.”
Of the eight ovarian cancer cases that have gone to trial so far, four have resulted in verdicts for plaintiffs and one for the company. Three other verdicts against J&J were overturned on appeal.
In 12 trials of cases claiming that asbestos in talc caused plaintiffs’ mesothelioma, J&J was cleared of liability in five, and plaintiffs won three, resulting in a total of $172 million in plaintiffs’ mesothelioma, J&J was cleared of liability in five, and plaintiffs won three, resulting in a total of $172 million in damages. Four others resulted in hung juries and mistrials.
J&J is appealing all the verdicts against it.
Meanwhile, J&J has pulled back from marketing specifically to minority and overweight women. A 2015 presentation makes no mention of minorities, suggesting the brand “target adults, with a focus on men.”
Plaintiffs’ lawyers and other advocates have become more vocal in criticizing the targeted marketing campaigns. In a recent newsletter, the National Council of Negro Women, a women’s leadership group with about 30,000 members, drew attention to the issue with an essay penned by civil-rights lawyer Ben Crump, who is representing some Baby Powder plaintiffs.
“Lots of products target African-Americans. That’s marketing 101: Go where our customers are,” said Janice Mathis, the council’s executive director. “What has me disturbed about this is that you didn’t give any caveat to the customers, once you knew there was a possibility there was some danger.”
In an emailed response to questions from Reuters, J&J said its Baby Powder is safe and asbestos-free. It noted that the company’s marketing over the years has been directed at many demographics and groups, and that “we’re proud pioneers of the practice of multicultural marketing.”
There are currently 13,000 plaintiffs alleging that J&J’s Baby Powder and Shower to Shower, a powder brand the company sold off in 2012, caused their ovarian cancer or mesothelioma.
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