Johnson & Johnson’s Baby Powder: Harmless Household Product or Lethal Carcinogen?

On Monday night, a jury in St. Louis awarded $72 million to the family of a woman who died of ovarian cancer after using Johnson & Johnson’s baby powder and other talcum-based products for years. The verdict came after a three-week trial in which lawyers for the plaintiff, an Alabama woman named Jacqueline Fox, argued that Johnson & Johnson had known of the dangers of talcum powder since the 1980s and concealed the risks. The corporation’s lawyers countered by saying the safety of talcum powder was supported by decades of scientific evidence and there was no direct proof of causation between its products and Fox’s cancer.

Fox used Johnson & Johnson’s baby powder and another talc-based product called Shower to Shower for 35 years. “It just became second nature, like brushing your teeth,” her son said. “It’s a household name.” The company has come under fire in recent years from consumer safety groups for the use of questionable ingredients in its products, including formaldehyde and 1,4-dioxane, both of which are considered likely carcinogens. Fox’s case was the first to reach a monetary award among some 1,200 lawsuits pending nationally against the company.

The case bears a notable resemblance to the lawsuits against the tobacco companies, with attorneys for both the plaintiff and the defendant taking a page from the playbook of their respective side. Fox’s lawyers claimed that Johnson & Johnson’s own medical consultants warned in internal documents of the risk of ovarian cancer from hygienic talc use, just as tobacco companies knew for decades that smoking caused lung cancer but sought to suppress the evidence. And the pharmaceutical giant responded as the tobacco industry did in the numerous lawsuits it faced in the 1980s and 1990s: by creating doubt about the mechanism of cancer causation and upholding the safety of its products.

I find this case uniquely disturbing because the image of Johnson & Johnson’s baby powder as a household product that evokes a sense of comfort and protection is so at odds with the jury’s finding that it caused or contributed to a case of fatal ovarian cancer. The company appears to be right in claiming that the scientific evidence is inconclusive: some studies have shown a slightly increased risk of ovarian cancer among women who use products containing talcum powder, while others have found no link. It’s important to note that until the 1970s talcum-based products contained asbestos, so people who used them before that time were exposed to a known carcinogen. Still, the research is unsettled enough that the American Cancer Society advises people who are concerned about talcum powder to avoid using it “[u]ntil more information is available.”

Without examining the trial transcripts or interviewing the jurors, it’s impossible to know for sure what factors influenced the verdict. I imagine the tobacco settlements have irrevocably changed the environment surrounding these types of lawsuits—that there’s a sizable segment of the American public which is understandably suspicious of large corporations trying to conceal research about the health risks of their products. I suspect there’s also an element of causation and blame at work here, about wanting to assign responsibility for a disease that remains, for the most part, perplexing and impenetrable. We all make choices that affect our health on a daily basis, from what kind of shampoo to use to what to eat for lunch, and we want assurance that the repercussions of the decisions we make with good intentions will be in our best interest. But as the unprecedented $72 million verdict shows, we have an immense uneasiness about the dangers lurking behind the most benign-seeming household products. And we fear that those products, rather than benefiting us, will instead do us harm.

The Coerciveness of Public Health

This morning I awoke to the news that Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, thinks parents should have a choice about whether to vaccinate their children. He has since backtracked on his statement and affirmed his support for vaccination. But as a measles outbreak spreads across California, Arizona, and twelve other states, it’s exposing the tension between personal autonomy and community well-being that’s an ever-present part of the doctrine of public health.

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The current measles outbreak most likely started when a single infected individual visited Disneyland over the holidays, exposing thousands of vacationers to a highly communicable disease that the CDC declared eliminated from the U.S. in 2000. At another time—say, ten years ago—the outbreak might have been contained to a handful of cases. But as numerous media outlets have reported, immunization rates have been dropping in recent years, particularly in wealthy enclaves where parents still believe the debunked link between vaccines and autism, aim for a toxin-free lifestyle, or distrust Big Pharma and the vaccine industrial complex.

I am young enough to have benefited from the scientific advances that led to widespread immunization in the 1970s, and old enough to have parents who both had measles as children and can recall the dread surrounding polio when they were growing up. Vaccines are a clear example of how public health is supposed to work. One of the unambiguous public health successes of the twentieth century, vaccines have transformed ailments such as pertussis, diphtheria, and chickenpox from fearsome childhood afflictions that could cause lifelong complications, and even death, to avertible diseases.

The basic premise of public health is the prevention of disease, and public health guidelines have led to increased life expectancy and decreased incidence of communicable illnesses, as well as some chronic ones. Yet public health regulations have always had to balance individual civil liberties with public safety. People are free to make their own choices, as long as they don’t infringe on the public good. For the most part you’re still allowed to smoke in your own home (although your neighbors could sue you for it), but you can’t subject me to your secondhand smoke in restaurants, bars, or office buildings.

I believe in handwashing, USDA inspections, the use of seatbelts, and the pasteurization of milk. I believe in quarantines when they are based on the best available information and are applied evenly. (A quarantine that isolates all travelers from West Africa who have symptoms of Ebola would be reasonable; one that singles out black Africans from anywhere on the continent regardless of health status would not.) In short, I am in favor of a coercive public health apparatus. The problem with the current measles outbreak is that enforcement has become too lax, with too many states allowing parents to opt out of immunizing their children because of ill-conceived beliefs that are incompatible with the public good.

Every parent spends a lifetime making choices about how to raise their child, from environment and lifestyle to moral and ethical guidance. But some choices have a greater capacity to impact the lives of others. If you want to let your child run around with scissors, watch R-rated movies, and eat nothing but pork rinds all day, you can. If you want to home-school your child because you want greater control over the curriculum he or she is being taught, you’re free to do that, too. And if you want to keep your child from getting vaccinated against communicable diseases, then the state won’t step in to force you. Opting out of vaccinations might not make you a bad parent any more than raising a fried-snack fiend might. But unless you’re planning to spend your days in physical isolation from every other human on the planet, it does make you a bad member of the public.