A New Low: J&J Tested Talc and Asbestos on Black Prisoners

Johnson's Baby Powder discontinuedRecently released documents from prison studies conducted in the 1960s and 1970s have revealed another chink in the armor of Johnson & Johnson’s “family friendly” reputation. The baby powder giant was injecting primarily Black prisoners at Holmesberg Prison in Pennsylvania with talc and asbestos to test and compare their effects. The studies add further validity to testimony that J&J has known of the link between talc and asbestos, and the cancers they cause, for decades.

The news also further underscores the culture of racism that J&J quietly but boldly embraced. Testimony in talc-related cancer trials has revealed internal documents showing that, in the 1980s when concern about asbestos in talc began to make consumers wary, the company shifted its marketing targets to women of color and overweight women, who J&J executives considered to be less educated and therefore more easily influenced.

A Bloomberg article published March 7, 2022 detailed the studies after records were publicly released. The studies were first mentioned in the trial of a California teacher who was awarded $26.4 million by a jury last year.

Other news outlets have also published news of the prison studies in recent hours, including UK’s Independent.

During the trial, the jury was told of the talc asbestos studies, but was not told that they were conducted on prisoners for fear that the information would prejudice the jury; nor were they told that the vast majority of participants were Black.

Johnson & Johnson began facing its first lawsuits in talc-related ovarian cancer cases in 2013. Since then, it has paid more than $3.5 billion in verdicts and settlements for the handful of cases that have gone to trial. Approximately 40,000 cases are awaiting resolution.

Despite the mountain of evidence against the corporation, including internal memos from its own scientists urging discontinuation of talc in baby powder over 50 years ago because of asbestos concerns, J&J continues to maintain that its baby powder products have never contained asbestos. Company executives have never admitted guilt.

What the company has done is exploit a loophole in bankruptcy law called a “Texas Two-Step.” Late last year, it created a shell company called LTL Management, Inc. (“LTL” is an acronym for Long-term Liability) in Texas and parked its talc and mesothelioma liabilities in that company. It then moved LTL Management to North Carolina, where it promptly filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy.

By doing this, J&J potentially protects the majority of its $435 billion in assets. It also denies its victims their day in court, since the bulk of lawsuits remaining will now be settled in bankruptcy court.

Last week, a U.S. District Court judge ruled that the bankruptcy could move forward. It will now advance in New Jersey, but not without the ire of victims and lawmakers. One group of U.S. Senators in particular is hoping to put a stop to viable corporations like J&J – one of the richest companies in the world – from venal misuse of bankruptcy to cheat their victims.

Read Senator Dick Durbin’s speech here.

OnderLaw continues to fight for the rights of women whose lives were destroyed by talc-related ovarian cancer, as well as the families of those women who have lost their fight. Our team filed the second case in the nation and has been at the forefront of talc litigation leadership since its inception.

Johnson’s Baby Powder was removed from store shelves in North America in 2020, though it continues to be sold in other markets worldwide.