Johnson & Johnson ordered to pay $72M to family in cancer-talcum powder case

A Missouri jury awarded $72 million US in damages to the family of a woman who died of ovarian cancer following decades of use of Johnson & Johnson’s talc-based powders.

Warning labels never applied to products even though concerns about risks were raised in the '80s

Johnson & Johnson ordered to pay $72M to family

7 years ago
Duration 1:48
Warning labels never applied to products even though concerns about ovarian cancer risks were raised in the '80s

A Missouri jury has awarded $72 million US in damages to the family of a woman who died of ovarian cancer following decades of use of Johnson & Johnson's talc-based powders.

The family of Jacqueline Fox was awarded $10 million US in actual damages and $62 million in punitive damages late Monday.

Lawyers for Fox claimed she used Johnson & Johnson's baby powder and Shower to Shower products for feminine hygiene for more than 35 years before she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer three years ago. The Birmingham, Ala., woman died at age 62.

The family argued Johnson & Johnson failed to warn consumers of the risks of talc-based products.

The jury found Johnson & Johnson liable for fraud, negligence and conspiracy, the family's lawyers said.

Johnson & Johnson spokeswoman Carol Goodrich said Tuesday that the New Jersey-based company was considering its next legal move.

"The recent U.S. verdict goes against decades of sound science proving the safety of talc as a cosmetic ingredient in multiple products, and while we sympathize with the family of the plaintiff, we strongly disagree with the outcome," Shelley Kohut, director of communications and public relations with Johnson & Johnson added in a statement to CBC News. 

At trial, Fox family lawyers introduced into evidence a September 1997 internal memo from a Johnson & Johnson medical consultant suggesting that "anybody who denies (the) risks" between "hygenic" talc use and ovarian cancer will be publicly perceived in the same light as those who denied a link between smoking cigarettes and cancer: "Denying the obvious in the face of all evidence to the contrary."

Jere Beasley, a lawyer for Fox's family, told reporters the company knew of the risk "as far back as the 1980s" yet resorted to "lying to the public, lying to the regulatory agencies."

The World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) says there is "limited evidence in humans" for an association between genital use of talc-based body powder and ovarian cancer.

Dr. Daniel Cramer, an obstetrician-gynecologist with the Epidemiology Center at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, first found epidemiologic evidence of an association in 1982.

"We provided evidence that talc can be found in tissues from ovarian cancer patients, particularly in lymph nodes," Cramer, who provided written testimony at the trial, told CBC News.

"Johnson & Johnson contacted me after that [1982] study. Obviously they ignored my advice that they put a warning label on."

Paul Demers of Cancer Care Ontario sat on the International Agency for Research on Cancer committee that weighed the evidence and classified talc as possibly carcinogenic. 

"We have some evidence to be concerned about … it is not definitive enough to say probably carcinogenic," Demers said.

More than 280 agents are listed as possible carcinogens. 

"If you're concerned overall about talcum powder, then there's enough things to worry about in life. I would simply not use it," Demers suggested.

The UK ovarian cancer support charity Ovacome's fact sheet puts the risk into perspective. 

"Even if the risk of ovarian cancer is increased, studies suggest that using talc increases the risk of ovarian cancer by around a third. Although this may sound frightening, to put it into context, smoking and drinking increases the risk of esophageal cancer by 30 times."

The group notes women with ovarian cancer understandably look for a cause for their disease and may have been more likely to remember using talc than those who did not have cancer.

Nora Freeman Engstrom, a Stanford University law professor not involved in the Missouri case, said it's unlikely the $72-million award will stand.

Talc was once mixed with asbestos, which is known to cause cancer. Baby powder has been asbestos-free since the 1970s.

With files from The Associated Press and Reuters