The healthcare company Johnson & Johnson is facing an attempt to force a shareholder vote to halt its sales of talc-based baby powder across the world, including the UK, amid concerns over alleged links to cancer.
Johnson & Johnson (J&J) withdrew its talc-based baby powder from sale in the US and Canada in 2020. Sales of baby powder had dropped after US regulators detected carcinogenic chrysotile fibres, a type of asbestos, in a sample.
The company is now facing more than 34,000 lawsuits including many from women who claim they used baby powder and later developed ovarian cancer.
The shareholder vote has been proposed by Tulipshare, a London-based investment platform which allows customers to pool their shares in order to meet the threshold to submit resolutions for shareholder votes. The proposal has been submitted to the US Securities and Exchange Committee (SEC) to consider if it is eligible ahead of J&J’s annual meeting, likely to be held in April.
Talc, the world’s softest mineral, is mined in several countries, with uses across industries as diverse as paper, plastics and pharmaceuticals. Talc’s astringent properties mean it is used to treat nappy rash and for other personal hygiene uses.
However, talc deposits can sometimes be contaminated with asbestos, a mineral that can cause cancer if its fibres enter the body. Corn starch can be used as a replacement.
J&J strongly denies that its baby powder is harmful and said it only pulled the product in North America after a slump in sales “fuelled by misinformation around the safety of the product”. A spokesperson pointed to a 2020 cohort study that found no statistically significant increased risk of ovarian cancer with talc use.
A spokesperson said: “We stand behind the ingredients we use in our products, and Johnson & Johnson has a rigorous testing standard in place to ensure our cosmetic talc is safe. Not only is our talc routinely tested to ensure it does not contain asbestos, but our talc has also been tested and confirmed to be asbestos-free by a range of independent laboratories, universities, and global health authorities.”
The barrage of legal claims “have no valid scientific basis”, the spokesperson said.
J&J’s lawyers, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, have written to the SEC asking that it exclude the shareholder resolution as ineligible because it would affect pending lawsuits in state and federal courts in the US and in other countries, including “thousands of personal injury claims alleging that talc causes cancer”.
J&J has already spent billions on costs and settlements, including a $2bn (£1.5bn) judgment by a Missouri appeals court in favour of 22 plaintiffs who suffered from ovarian cancer. In October, J&J moved the potential liabilities for talc products into a separate company, which then entered bankruptcy in a highly controversial move that could limit its financial exposure.
Ian Lavery, a Labour MP, last year sponsored an early-day motion in parliament condemning the “hypercritical and unjustifiable” decision by J&J to continue to sell talcum powder products outside North America. Lavery said he welcomed the attempt to force a shareholder vote.
“It is shocking that products that we know can cause serious illness through contamination with asbestos are still available to buy in the UK, or anywhere else in the world for that matter,” he said.
“Any action taken against Johnson & Johnson, who continue to profit handsomely from the sale of this harmful substance despite knowing its potential effects, is welcome in my book.”