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US jury says J&J’s baby powder causes cancer

AP, TRENTON, New Jersey

A bottle of Johnson’s baby powder is displayed in San Francisco on April 15, 2011.

Photo: AP

Johnson & Johnson (J&J) has been hit with a US multimillion-dollar jury verdict for the fourth time over whether the talc in its baby powder causes ovarian cancer when applied regularly for feminine hygiene.

A St Louis, Missouri, jury on Thursday awarded US$110.5 million to Lois Slemp, 62, of Wise, Virginia, who was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2012. She blames her illness on her use of the company’s talcum powder-containing products for more than 40 years.

Besides Slemp’s case, three other jury trials in St Louis reached similar outcomes last year, awarding the plaintiffs US$72 million, US$70.1 million and US$55 million, for a combined total of US$307.6 million.

The company said its product is safe and it plans to appeal the latest verdict, as it has the other three.

Johnson & Johnson also has had some legal victories, including in March when a St Louis jury rejected the claims of a Tennessee woman with ovarian and uterine cancer.

Also, two cases in New Jersey were thrown out by a judge who said the plaintiffs’ lawyers had not presented reliable evidence that talc leads to ovarian cancer.

The next baby powder trial is next month in St Louis and is to be followed by another in July in California.

Investors do not seem worried that J&J is in financial trouble, even though the company faces an estimated 2,000 similar lawsuits.

J&J shares fell US$0.62 to US$123.1 in late-afternoon trading on Friday.

J&J, the world’s biggest maker of healthcare products, brings in about US$72 billion a year selling prescription drugs, medical devices, diagnostic equipment and consumer products ranging from baby shampoo and Aveeno skin care items to Tylenol pain reliever and Band-Aids.

Because of its size and diversified product lines, J&J is sued frequently and investors do not panic when it loses product liability lawsuits, so its stock price rarely drops much after losses. Also, the company clearly intends to keep fighting lawsuits alleging its iconic baby powder is not safe, rather than settling suits at this point.

Talc is a mineral that is mined from deposits around the world, including the US. The softest of minerals, it is crushed into a white powder. It has been widely used in cosmetics and other personal care products to absorb moisture since at least 1894, when Johnson & Johnson’s Baby Powder was launched, but it is mainly used in a variety of other products, including paint and plastics.

Like many questions in science, there is no definitive answer. Finding the cause of cancer is difficult. It would be unethical to do the best kind of study, asking a group of women to use talcum powder on their genitals and wait to see if it causes cancer, while comparing them with a group who did not use it.

While ovarian cancer is often fatal, it is relatively rare. It accounts for only about 22,400 of the 1.7 million new cases of cancer expected to be diagnosed in the US this year.

Factors that are known to increase a women’s risk of ovarian cancer include age, obesity, use of estrogen therapy after menopause, not having any children, certain genetic mutations and personal or family history of breast or ovarian cancer.

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