Johnson & Johnson, which has spent years insisting that its baby powder is safe, recalled 33,000 bottles of the product on Friday after the Food and Drug Administration discovered evidence of asbestos, a known carcinogen, in one of the bottles.
The recall, the first time Johnson & Johnson has pulled baby powder from store shelves over asbestos concerns, could undercut its defense against a swarm of allegations that its talc-based products caused cancer. It comes as the company, which reaches into the lives of millions of people through brands such as Tylenol, Band-Aid and Rogaine and reported nearly $82 billion in sales last year, is entangled in numerous legal battles over the safety of its products.
The company has settled some claims — and is still fighting others — involving its role in the nationwide opioid crisis. On Thursday, Johnson & Johnson agreed to pay $117 million in a settlement over the deceptive marketing of transvaginal pelvic mesh implants, and a jury this month ordered it to pay $8 billion to a Maryland man who accused the company of playing down the risks associated with the antipsychotic drug Risperdal. In total, the company faces more than 100,000 lawsuits over its products.
More than 15,000 of those are from people who say baby powder and other talc-based products caused them to develop cancer. Some have mesothelioma, an aggressive cancer that is considered the signature disease of asbestos exposure, while others have ovarian cancer.
The decision to pull the baby powder, sourced from China and distributed last year, is a “whopper” for a company as dependent on consumer trust as Johnson & Johnson, said David Noll, a law professor at Rutgers University.
“I can’t imagine an attorney for Johnson & Johnson standing up in front of a jury now and saying with a straight face that the product is safe,” Mr. Noll said. He added that “if people come to associate the company’s signature product with deadly diseases, there will be huge spillover effects for its ability to market other products.”
The recall was prompted by the FD.A.’s discovery of trace levels of chrysotile asbestos in samples from a bottle of baby powder bought from an online retailer. The company said it was informed of the results on Thursday and recalled bottles from lot number 22318RB out of an “abundance of caution,” though the F.D.A. advised consumers with baby powder from the affected lot to “stop using it immediately.”
But Johnson & Johnson also repeated its longstanding defense against cancer claims, saying that “thousands of tests over the past 40 years repeatedly confirm that our consumer talc products do not contain asbestos.” The company appeared to question the testing process, saying in a statement that it is working with the F.D.A. to “determine the integrity of the tested sample and the validity of the test results.”
Dr. Susan Nicholson, Johnson & Johnson’s vice president of women’s health, said during a short conference call with investors on Friday that the F.D.A.’s report showed “an extremely unusual finding” that was “inconsistent with our testing to date.”
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