By Peter Loftus 

Johnson & Johnson, besieged by lawsuits, will stop selling baby powder made with talc in the U.S. and Canada, citing a decline in customer demand amid safety concerns about one of its most famous products.

The move comes as J&J faces thousands of lawsuits alleging the talc powder has harmed women who had used it for years. Some of the lawsuits have led to costly jury verdicts against the company.

J&J, which has been fighting the lawsuits and verdicts and says its talc-containing powder is safe, will continue to sell a cornstarch-based version of Johnson's Baby Powder in the U.S. and Canada. And the company will continue to sell talc-containing and cornstarch baby powder outside of those countries, where it says consumer demand is significantly higher.

"Demand for talc-based Johnson's Baby Powder in North America has been declining due in large part to changes in consumer habits and fueled by misinformation around the safety of the product and a constant barrage of litigation advertising," J&J said Tuesday in a statement.

J&J has been facing lawsuits alleging its talcum powder was responsible for cancer in some women who used it for feminine hygiene for years, and in people who inhaled it.

As of March, about 19,400 plaintiffs had filed lawsuits against the company over its talc-based powder in U.S. courts, alleging it caused ovarian cancer and a rare cancer in tissue surrounding the lungs called mesothelioma.

"I'm delighted to hear that they finally started taking steps to remove talc-based baby powder from the market," said Ted Meadows, an attorney with the Beasley Allen law firm in Montgomery, Ala., who represents plaintiffs in the talc litigation.

He said he hoped J&J would take steps to compensate thousands of women he claims have been injured by the powder.

J&J didn't give any indication that stopping sales would mean resolving the litigation. The company said it would continue to defend the product, its safety and what it called unfounded allegations against the product and the company in court.

The company, in denying the allegations and fighting the lawsuits in court, has won some cases in court but lost some costly verdicts, too.

In February, a New Jersey jury ordered J&J to pay $750 million in punitive damages to four people who said their use of J&J's talcum powders caused mesothelioma; the judge reduced the amount to $186.5 million, and J&J is appealing the verdict.

Johnson's Baby Powder represents about 0.5% of the company's U.S. consumer-health sales. The business reported nearly $1.5 billion in sales last year, a fraction of J&J's more than $82 billion in total global sales for the year.

J&J relies more on prescription-drug and medical-device sales.

Yet Johnson's is a popular brand familiar to generations of people. Because the product contains the Johnson name, the negative publicity about the safety concerns have dented the company's reputation, surveys have found. And J&J shares have suffered over concerns that its ultimate liability will be hefty, even though some of its losses have been reduced or reversed on appeal.

J&J also has faced an unusually large caseload of lawsuits over a range of other products in recent years.

The baby-powder lawsuits have generally alleged that talc, a mineral that is crushed to create Johnson's Baby Powder, can cause inflammation that leads to cancer.

Some of the lawsuits further allege that asbestos in the powder contributed to cancer. Asbestos, a mineral once widely used in construction, has been linked to increased risk for mesothelioma.

J&J, of New Brunswick, N.J., has repeatedly said its talcum powder doesn't contain asbestos. Last October, however, J&J recalled about 33,000 bottles of its baby powder after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said a laboratory test found a small amount of asbestos in one bottle.

J&J said it issued the recall out of an abundance of caution, and said subsequent testing of the same bottle and lot by different labs found no asbestos.

J&J has tried to counter the allegations publicly by running newspaper advertisements and creating a website, "factsabouttalc.com," with information about tests that the company says support the product's safety.

J&J said Tuesday it would wind down commercialization of the talc-based powder in the U.S. and Canada in the coming months, and that existing inventory would be sold through retailers until it runs out.

Write to Peter Loftus at peter.loftus@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

May 19, 2020 19:07 ET (23:07 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
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