January 7, 2020

New Mexico sues over talc, citing marketing aimed at African-American and Hispanic New Mexico women and children

Courtesy photo

New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas.

New Mexico sued Johnson & Johnson and Valeant Pharmaceuticals over talc-based products it allegedly knew were laced with contamination while specifically marketing those products to African-American and Hispanic New Mexican women and children.

Attorney General Hector Balderas filed the suit Friday in the First Judicial District Court of New Mexico. Although thousands of individuals have sued Johnson & Johnson over the manufacture and sale of talc products that allegedly contain toxic substances, New Mexico is one of the first states to seek punitive damages through legal action.

New Mexico alleges that “to grow the franchise,” Johnson & Johnson specifically targeted African-American and Hispanic women and children because the company’s studies showed that those two ethnicities used Johnson’s Baby Powder products at higher rates. New Mexico’s brief states that this disproportionately affects New Mexico citizens because 48 percent of the population is made up of African-American and Hispanic people.

The suit states that in the same company document in which it laid out its marketing strategy, Johnson & Johnson said that “Negative publicity from health community on talc continues…cancer linkage.”

The suit alleges that Johnson & Johnson both implied and expressly stated to these specific communities and to the public at large that the talc products were safe while misrepresenting and omitting information that led New Mexico residents to use the products unwittingly in a “potentially lethal way.”

A study in 1995 found a 27 percent increase in ovarian cancer for women who used talc on a regular basis in abdominal or vaginal areas, the brief states.

But 1995 wasn’t the first time Johnson and Johnson became aware of the dangers of its products, the suit alleges. A growing body of medical and scientific literature began to emerge in the 1930s regarding the contaminants that talc contains, according to the suit.

By the mid-1960s scientists began to study talc products repeatedly and, over the next several decades, found cancer-causing contaminants, including fibers that cause asbestosis, a disease of the lung. But the companies and others tied to the industry worked to keep that information from getting to the public, the suit states.

The suit states that between 1970 and the 1990s, the company-supported scientists conducted tests which showed that talc and talcum powder products contain asbestos but that information was not shared with regulatory agencies and the studies only became known through civil litigation, according to the suit.

In 1971, independent scientists conducted a study that was the first to make a connection between contaminants in talc and ovarian cancer, according to the suit.

As recently as 2016 Johnson and Johnson has continued to “misrepresent” the toxic contents of its talc-based products to the Food and Drug Administration, the suit alleges. 

The products New Mexico is specifically suing over are Johnson’s Baby Powder, Johnson’s Medicated Powder and Shower to Shower, now owned by Valeant Pharmaceuticals.

Johnson & Johnson said through an email to NM Political Report that it will “continue to defend the safety of Johnson’s Baby Powder, which is supported by decades of scientific evidence showing our talc is safe and free of asbestos.”

Valeant Pharmaceuticals, now known as Bausch Health Companies, said it could not comment on the suit because the company has not yet been served. But a financial statement sent by the company states that Bausch Health Companies has been indemnified by Johnson & Johnson regarding lawsuits over Shower to Shower.

Balderas said through a statement that New Mexicans have been misled and the health and safety of families are at stake.

“These products have been targeted at minority groups, especially Black and Hispanic women and children, with false messages about their safety, and I will hold these companies accountable,” Balderas said through the written statement.