Talcum Powder Sales Shouldn’t Come At The Cost Of Women’s Lives

by Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi and M. Isabelle Chaudry who serves as Senior Policy Manager of the National Women’s Health Network

Following a series of high-profile lawsuits that linked its product to cases of ovarian cancer and mesothelioma, the pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson announced in May that it would discontinue sales of its asbestos-containing talc-based baby powder in the United States and Canada.

However, in making this historic commitment, Johnson & Johnson also stipulated that all existing inventory still on U.S. shelves would continue to be sold until supplies ran out. This comes as the company has also worked to expand sales of their talc-based baby powder in markets abroad.

As a Haitian-American woman and an Indian-American Member of Congress, we write to voice our concerns about the continuing presence of this poisonous product in the U.S., and its expanding presence around the world.

Given Johnson & Johnson’s interest in expanding their sales in South Africa, Ghana, Kenya, Brazil, Russia, China and India, we are especially concerned with the company’s history of marketing practices that they’ve employed to target their talc-based baby powder products to marginalized communities.

In the past few decades Johnson & Johnson has studied cultural norms and found that their talc-based baby powder was especially popular among communities of color, particularly those in hot and humid climates. Baby powder is often used as a deodorant and to help with chafing in adults as well as infants.

In a 1992 memo released to the public in 2016, Johnson & Johnson executives wrote about investigating “(African American, Hispanic) opportunities to grow the franchise.” More recently in their 2006 marketing plans, Johnson & Johnson included a focus on “underdeveloped geographical areas with hot weather, and higher AA population,” the “AA” referring to African Americans. And in 2008 the company sought proposals for an “African American agency” to develop campaigns “speaking to AA consumers,” which led them to distribute 100,000 gift bags containing product samples in African American and Hispanic neighborhoods throughout Chicago.

Such predatory marketing practices targeting marginalized communities in the United States raises serious concerns about Johnson & Johnson’s expansion around the world. As our nation, and our world, come to terms with its history of racial oppression, we must also seek to address the systemic injustices that have allowed companies like Johnson & Johnson to conduct such blatant exploitation in the U.S., and now abroad.

We can no longer turn a blind eye to the patterns of manipulation and predatory marketing that have caused higher concentrations of hazardous materials to proliferate in communities of color. And we must hold companies like Johnson & Johnson to account for continuing to sell a product they already know to be poisonous both here in the United States and across the world.

That is why we are joining together today to urge Johnson & Johnson to go beyond its recent commitment to stop selling the product in the U.S. and Canada to aggressively work to remove any remaining inventory from U.S. shelves while also halting all sales of the product globally. We are demanding the company mount a global public-education campaign encouraging consumers to throw away their talc-based products. And we are urging Alex Gorsky and the members of Johnson & Johnson’s Board to sit down with current and future victims across the world. Through open and honest dialogue, we can work to reach a fair and just agreement that not only protects survivors, but also compensates victims and covers the financial burden of treatment.

Of course, none of this will bring back the lives that have been lost. But by taking steps to make amends, Johnson & Johnson has an opportunity to repair some of the damage it has done. And we sincerely hope that they will take it.

Congressman Representing Illinois' 8th Congressional District