Efforts To Avoid Warning About Baby Powder and Ovarian Cancer Highlighted in Years of Unsealed Emails

Johnson & Johnson execs also edited the supposedly independent talcum powder risk assessment report without the FDA's knowledge, the documents reveal

As Johnson & Johnson engages in a controversial bankruptcy maneuver, which is largely seen as an attempt to delay thousands of lawsuits alleging the company failed to disclose the link between Baby Powder and ovarian cancer, years of internal emails have been uncovered that highlight how the company cherry-picked scientists to write a report that was used to avoid adding label warnings to it’s talc-based products.

Johnson & Johnson currently faces more than 30,000 Baby Powder lawsuits and Shower-to-Shower lawsuits over failure to warn about the risk of ovarian cancer, which plaintiffs claim caused by exposure to talc and asbestos particles in the products. Plaintiffs allege that the company has known about the link between talcum powder and cancer for decades, but has engaged in an on-going effort to avoid warning about the risk.

One of those lawsuits was filed by the state of Mississippi, where the discovery process revealed a series of emails that indicate Johnson & Johnson not only chose scientists hired by the Personal Care Products Council (PCPC), an industry trade association, to write a 2009 talcum powder health risk assessment, but also had input into the final version of the report, according to a report by Bloomberg Law this week.

The report comes as a federal judge agreed to a temporary stay on the talcum powder litigation, after Johnson & Johnson created a new subsidiary that is saddled with the company’s liability for failing to warn about the Baby Powder risks, and then immediately placed the company into bankruptcy.

Critics have argued that the Johnson & Johnson talcum powder bankruptcy plan is part of a scheme to delay progress in the lawsuits, and avoid additional cases from reaching a courtroom, where juries have previously awarded billions in damages in favor of plaintiffs after seeing all of the evidence.

According to the Bloomberg Law report, the manipulated talcum powder risk assessment was submitted to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and played a role in the agency’s decision not to require talc-based products to carry a cancer label warning. The assessment was issued in response to a citizen’s petition filed in 2008, by Samuel Epstein, the head of the Cancer Prevention Coalition, who called for talcum powder cancer label warnings to be added, which indicate that frequent use of Johnson’s Baby Powder and other talc-based products on female genitals increased the risk of ovarian cancer.

The recently unsealed emails reportedly show that Johnson & Johnson selected the individual scientists the PCPC used to make its safety assessment, and helped write the executive summary. In addition, the researchers actually altered the final version of the report at the request of Johnson & Johnson. The FDA was reportedly never told of the company’s participation in the health assessment.

The emails date back to 2008, between executives at Johnson & Johnson and Rio Tinto, the company’s talc supplier at that time. Rio Tinto later became known as Imerys SA, whose American subsidiary eventually declared bankruptcy under the weight of talcum powder litigation.

The documents reveal that Johnson & Johnson directed PCPC to hire Penn State University cancer researcher Joshua Muscat, and cancer researcher Michael Huncharek. The industry group obeyed. In addition, the documents indicate that J&J executive Kathleen Wille recommended the final report be submitted through the PCPC, rather than through the company.

The emails also indicate Johnson & Johnson officials met with an unidentified FDA manager, who told the company the agency wanted to deny Epstein’s label warning request, but wanted scientific support from the cosmetics industry to do so. FDA officials told Bloomberg they were unaware of such a meeting, and Wille denies the meeting ever happened.

Talcum Powder Bankruptcy Proceedings

Most of the U.S. talc litigation is currently pending in the federal court system and centralized before U.S. District Judge Freda L. Wolfson in the District of New Jersey, as part of an MDL or multidistrict litigation, where plans are underway for the first in a series of talcum powder “bellwether” trials to begin in April 2022.

However, that schedule is now in jeopardy after a federal bankruptcy judge granted a request by Johnson & Johnson to stay the proceedings temporarily on November 10, while bankruptcy proceedings move forward in the recently established subsidiary, LTL Management, LLC, which was formed for the express purpose of placing the new unit into bankruptcy, even though Johnson & Johnson itself has billions of dollars in assets on hand.

The controversial bankruptcy maneuver, which has become known as the “Texas Two-Step,” has been used by other companies facing asbestos claims to break off part of itself as a separate unit under Texas law, shuffle its liabilities into that new unit, and then declare bankruptcy, hoping it will only have to pay pennies on the dollar to get rid of the massive legal liabilities, without facing the full consequences of their corporate actions that resulted in injuries for plaintiffs.

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