On July 27, 2021, the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) sued Johnson & Johnson (J&J) for targeted marketing regarding its controversial talcum powder products. The advocacy group claims J&J knew its talc-based products were harmful to consumers. Its talcum powder products have been linked to asbestos exposure and ovarian cancer.
Despite this knowledge, J&J marketed these products without warnings and geared ad campaigns toward Black women. Claimants say their lifelong use of these products ultimately led to cancer.
Asbestos exposure is linked to diseases, such as mesothelioma and other types of cancer.
Johnson & Johnson Focuses Marketing Strategy on Black Women
J&J’s talc-based products, such as baby powder, have been household staples for decades. However, in recent years, the popularity of these products has waned. This prompted the company to refocus its marketing toward a high-use demographic.
Internal communications from 2006 suggest J&J redirected its marketing efforts toward Black women. At the time, 60% of Black women were using J&J’s talc-based products. In comparison, during the same time period, only 30% of the general population were using the products.
J&J created ad strategies to appeal to Black women specifically. The company provided 100,000 samples at churches and other areas throughout Chicago. A 2010 radio campaign targeted “curvy Southern women 18-49 skewing African American.”
J&J even considered signing Black female icons, such as Aretha Franklin or Patti Labelle, as spokeswomen for its products.
NCNW claims not only did J&J target Black women, but the company knew its products were unsafe.
“This company, through its words and images, told Black women that we were offensive in our natural state and needed to use their products to stay fresh… Generations of Black women believed them and made it our daily practice to use their products in ways that put us at risk of cancer — and we taught our daughters to do the same.”
– Janice Mathis, Executive Director of the National Council of Negro Women
Johnson & Johnson Denies Health Concerns of Talcum Powder
Reports as far back as 1972 have found asbestos contamination in J&J talc products. One report noted the amount of asbestos was “rather high.”
Additionally, a Reuters investigation of internal J&J documents found there was evidence of asbestos in the products. The investigation also found J&J kept the information from regulators and the public.
There has also been controversy over a potential link between J&J’s talcum powder and ovarian cancer.
J&J dismissed these asbestos reports and additional claims. The company maintains its products are safe and asbestos-free.
Ongoing Legal Cases Against Johnson & Johnson
J&J has been fighting talcum powder litigation for years. More than 25,000 lawsuits claim its talc-based products caused the plaintiffs’ ovarian cancer or mesothelioma diagnoses.
Many of these lawsuits have ended in compensation for claimants. Some of the largest awards to plaintiffs in J&J cases include:
- 2016: $55 million
- 2016: $72 million
- 2018: $117 million
- 2019: $29 million
- 2020: $120 million
J&J has set aside almost $4 billion for legal costs. The company has also discussed filing Chapter 11 bankruptcy to handle the growing number of legal claims.
In 2019, J&J recalled 33,000 bottles of baby powder due to asbestos. In 2020, it stopped selling talc products in the United States and Canada.
However, there is still a risk of asbestos exposure with products distributed before 2020. Asbestos-related diseases can take decades to present. Anyone with past exposure to J&J talc-based products could develop health problems.
The company still sells its talc-based products internationally, despite calls for a global ban.
What the Lawsuit Might Mean for Impacted Communities
The NCNW says targeting Black women with an unsafe product was especially harmful. Black women have less access to health measures and education. The advocacy group hopes the lawsuit results in better care for Black women.
NCNW’s primary goal is corrective outreach from J&J to the Black community. This includes:
- Early detection services for cancer
- Legal costs
- Medical monitoring
Despite state and federal regulations, asbestos-contaminated products are still a health concern. Filing lawsuits against negligent companies can help protect the public.