Johnson & Johnson must pay €65million in suit claiming Baby Powder led to ovarian cancer
The pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson has been ordered to pay $72 million (€65 million) to the family of a woman who claimed her ovarian cancer was caused by talcum powder.
A jury in St Louis, Missouri, said the company had failed to warn users of the potential dangers despite concerns raised by the American Cancer Society in 1999.
Although many talcum powder manufacturers in the US have since switched to corn starch following the scare in the 90s, in Britain most still use talcum.
However the ruling is likely to prove controversial because most cancer experts believe the link is unproven and law experts said British claimants would face a higher bar in trying to convince a UK judge that talcum was a direct cause of cancer.
Johnson & Johnson is currently facing 1,200 lawsuits in the US from customers who claim they were not warned about the risks.
Mrs Fox claimed she used two of the company's talc-based products - Baby Powder and Shower to Shower – as feminine hygiene produces for more than 35 years before being diagnosed three years ago with ovarian cancer. She died last year of ovarian cancer.
Johnson & Johnson was ordered pay the family of Jackie Fox $10 million in compensation and $62 million as a punitive award.
Speaking after the hearing Krista Smith, the jury foreman, said she felt that Johnson & Johnson - the world's largest health products manufacturer - had been disingenuous.
“It was really clear they were hiding something,” she said. “All they had to do was put a warning label on.”
Allen Smith, an attorney for the family, told the jury that the company would "not change their behaviour until good people like you act".
Mr Smith said the verdict had been warranted "given the horrible conduct of Johnson & Johnson.”
Before the 1970s, talcum powder was often contaminated with asbestos fibres which are known to cause cancer. But since then, all home products containing talcum powder are legally obliged to be asbestos-free.
Some scientists have suggested that talc particles could travel to the ovaries, irritate them and cause inflammation. Low-level, long-term inflammation may increase the risk of some types of cancer.
However there is little evidence to support the hypothesis and studies looking into whether anti-inflammatory drugs could prevent cancer have shown they are ineffective.
Most studies suggesting a connection were found to be flawed and often relied on people recalling use of talcum powder many years previously. The only large cohort study found there was no link to ovarian cancer.
Cancer Research UK states on its website: “If something truly causes cancer, you would expect people who are exposed to more of that thing to have a higher risk.
“For example, the more you smoke, the higher your risk of lung cancer. But the majority of the studies have not found a similar relationship for talc use and ovarian cancer.”
The ovarian cancer charity Ovacome also said: “The evidence for a link is weak, but even if talc does increase the risk of ovarian cancer studies suggest it would be by around a third.
“This is a modest increase in risk and ovarian cancer is a relatively rare disease. Increasing a small risk by a third still gives a small risk.”
Law experts in Britain warned that if the company was prosecuted in Britain, a judge, not a jury, would need to be convinced that there was enough scientific evidence to support the claim.
Roderick Bagshaw, Associate Professor of Law said: “Whether we will see claims against baby powder producers in England is likely to depend to a great extent on the nature of the scientific evidence that supports the proposition that such powder causes cancer.
“In England such cases would involve having to convince a judge, rather than having to convince a jury, and the judge would have to be convinced not just that powder can cause cancer but also that a particular claimant's cancer was caused (or contributed to) by the powder.
“A problem claimants frequently face is that if their cancer could have been caused by many different things then it is hard to show that one of them made a difference.”
Carol Goodrich, a spokesman for Johnson & Johnson, issued a statement expressing disappointment in the outcome but insisting that the products are safe.
“We have no higher responsibility than the health and safety of consumers and we are disappointed with the outcome of the trial,” the statement reads. “We sympathise with the plaintiff’s family but firmly believe the safety of cosmetic talc is supported by decades of scientific evidence."