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When Good Companies Go Bad – Iconic Healthcare Brand under criminal investigation
It’s hard to wrap one’s head around the idea that an iconic company like Johnson & Johnson might not be the wholesome arbiter of family values it has always held itself up to be. In response to the company’s staunch denial in December 2018 that its talcum powder products were contaminated with asbestos fibers, the United States Justice Department launched a criminal investigation into whether Johnson & Johnson lied about the possible cancer risks of its Baby Powder and Shower-to-Shower, a brand the company spun off in 2012.
Governed By a Doctrine
Johnson & Johnson’s website boasts of the company having developed a credo early on to embrace “social responsibility”. From the beginning, Johnson & Johnson says it was guided by a “value system that prioritizes people over profits”. In 1935, during the Great Depression, Robert Wood Johnson II, the founder’s son, published a pamphlet reiterating that “business is more than profits; companies have a responsibility to consumers, employees, and society…”. When the company went public in 1944, Johnson published “Our Credo”, saying that he hoped other business leaders would adopt his philosophy to “never sacrifice values for profits”.
A Storied History
Johnson & Johnson was founded in 1886 in New Brunswick, New Jersey, by Robert Wood Johnson and his two brothers. Now one of the largest healthcare companies in the world, Johnson & Johnson is comprised of 250 subsidiary enterprises doing a robust business across three broad wellness categories: consumer healthcare, medical devices, and pharmaceuticals. In 2017, the company had worldwide sales of $76.5 billion. Its products are sold in more than 175 countries. The Johnson & Johnson name is as well-known as any in the first aid business, with household brands like Tylenol, Band-Aid, and Neutrogena as common to medicine cabinets as its baby powder is to newborn bottoms. In fact, Johnson & Johnson’s sales of talc-based powders in 2017 were $230 million, surpassing all competitors combined.
So What Happened?
The founding brothers earned their fame by publicizing and popularizing the importance of a sterile environment in the surgical theater and at childbirth. Yet, while the company has been responsible for many milestone advances in healthcare over the past 134 years, Johnson & Johnson seems to have lost sight of its early promise to prioritize people over profits. Thousands of men and women have filed suit against Johnson & Johnson for exposing them to asbestos in their talcum powder, which they say caused them to develop cancers, including ovarian cancer and the rare but extremely aggressive and always fatal asbestos cancer mesothelioma.
According to documents revealed in 2018, physicians at Johnson & Johnson advised the manufacturer in 1969 to limit any possible content of Tremolite (a form of asbestos commonly found with talc deposits) “to an absolute minimum”. Johnson & Johnson research scientist T.M. Thompson, M.D. pointed out to company executives at the time that the organization had begun to receive inquiries from pediatricians expressing concern about asbestos in its talc formulations. The physician suggested that company executives speak with their corporate lawyers because “… we could become involved in litigation”. Even Robert Wood Johnson II, by then retired as CEO, expressed written “concern over the possibility of the adverse effects on the lungs of babies or mothers.”
Profits Took Precedence
Yet the executives at Johnson & Johnson made the conscious decision to continue selling their contaminated products to an unsuspecting public, perhaps because it was too much trouble or too expensive to ensure their talc was truly asbestos-free. Instead, they vehemently denied to the public and to the U.S. Food & Drug Administration that their talc contained any asbestos whatsoever, a denial they continue to perpetuate to this day, despite tests dating back to 1957 which showed their talc did contain the toxic fibers. It would seem that corporate leaders at Johnson & Johnson most certainly chose to put profits over the safety of their customers.
More than 16,000 talc-related lawsuits have now been filed against Johnson & Johnson nationwide. Courts have rendered verdicts against the company in increasing numbers. While Johnson & Johnson has appealed most judgments against it, in June of 2020, a New Jersey Superior Court judge denied the company’s request to overturn an adverse award following a trial earlier that year, saying jurors correctly found “clear and convincing evidence” that J&J engaged in misdeeds.
If you or a family member has been diagnosed with ovarian cancer or mesothelioma caused by exposure to Johnson & Johnson talc products, we want to help. Call us at 855-280-7664 or complete our contact form.
At the end of May 2020, Johnson & Johnson made the stunning announcement that it would no longer sell Johnson’s Baby Powder in North American markets, remarking that sales had slumped due to negative publicity. The truth behind such an abrupt abandonment of its most venerated product, however, may be the executives’ realization that continuing to see containers of Johnson’s Baby Powder on store shelves will be a constant reminder to American consumers that, for this once-admired symbol of corporate responsibility, profits did, indeed, win out over the “people first” values espoused by the company’s founders.