What ever happened to DOJ’s baby powder probe into J&J? Lawmakers are pressing for answers

Aug 25, 2022

After months of radio silence from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), lawmakers are pressing the nation’s top legal officer for updates on a 2019 probe into Johnson & Johnson’s talcum powder sales.

Wednesday, congress members Steve Cohen of Tennessee’s 9th district and Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut’s 3rd district penned separate letters to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland demanding (PDF) an update on the probe. The investigation first came to light in 2019 after J&J had disclosed the receipt of federal subpoenas into its talc-based products.

At the time, federal investigators were believed to be looking into whether J&J misled the public with statements that its talc had always been asbestos-free. Documents from the 1960s and 1970s had surfaced showing J&J employees detected the now-known carcinogen in the product and debated internally about how to respond.

J&J did not immediately respond to Fierce Pharma’s request for comment on the latest pressure from lawmakers Cohen and DeLauro.

J&J had stood by its iconic talc-based products for years, repeatedly asserting its product is asbestos-free and does not cause cancer.

Even still, J&J last month said it would pull its talcum powder from the global market in 2023, citing a “commercial decision.” The move comes about two years after J&J made a similar move in the U.S. and Canada.

Wednesday, Tennessee’s Cohen wrote to Garland that J&J was “aware” of contamination in its talc powder and of the “potential health risks” of long-term use. He encouraged Garland to leverage the DOJ’s full resources to complete its investigation as quickly as possible.

“In my decades of public service, I have rarely encountered such nefarious and discriminatory corporate conduct,” the congressman continued.

For her part, Connecticut’s DeLauro said she was writing on behalf of thousands of women who’ve developed ovarian cancer and hundreds of men and women who’ve developed mesothelioma after using J&J’s talc powders. She said FDA testing and internal J&J documents have shown the company’s baby powder and other talc products have “contained asbestos and other carcinogens for decades.”

Even after J&J’s decision to discontinue sales of the product, the company still faces tens of thousands of injury lawsuits in the U.S. In a bid to try to get a handle on the issue, J&J is employing a legal maneuver called the “Texas Two Step,” under which it has established a subsidiary to house the legal claims. That subsidiary has declared bankruptcy, and J&J has offered a $2 billion settlement, which plaintiffs argue is unreasonably low. 

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