The US Justice Department is pursuing a criminal investigation into whether Johnson & Johnson lied to the public about the possible cancer risks of its talcum powder, people with knowledge of the matter said.
The criminal probe, which hasn’t been reported previously, coincides with a regulatory investigation and civil claims by thousands of cancer patients that J&J’s Baby Powder talc was responsible for their illness. Now, a grand jury in Washington is examining documents related to what company officials knew about any carcinogens in their products, the people said.
Baby Powder accounts for only a tiny fraction of J&J’s annual revenue, but it’s been a core brand for the company for more than a century. Questions about the product’s safety have led to more than 14,000 lawsuits from consumers asserting that the company’s talc products caused their ovarian cancer or mesothelioma, a rare form of the disease linked to asbestos exposure.
J&J disclosed in February that it had received subpoenas, but little was known then about the investigation behind them, including whether the matter was civil or criminal.
“We have been fully cooperating with the previously disclosed DOJ investigation and will continue to do so,” said J&J spokeswoman Kim Montagnino. “Johnson’s Baby Powder does not contain asbestos or cause cancer, as supported by decades of independent clinical evidence.”
J&J, the world’s largest maker of health care products, has said safety tests of its Baby Powder over many decades have shown no presence of asbestos. But some of the lawsuits have turned up internal memos as far back as the 1960s and ’70s that contain warnings from company scientists that asbestos detected in J&J’s talc was a “severe health hazard” that could pose a legal risk for the company.
Justice Department prosecutors, FBI agents and Securities and Exchange Commission regulators are almost surely looking at whether J&J officials’ public denials that their talc-based products ever contained asbestos were truthful, legal experts said. SEC spokeswoman Judy Burns declined to comment.
Nearly a dozen juries have concluded J&J knew that some of their Baby Powder and former Shower-to-Shower products had at least trace amounts of asbestos and failed to disclose that to consumers. Over the past three years, jurors have awarded a total of more than $5 billion to people who blame the powders for their cancers.
The company has said it has set aside money for legal costs related to talc claims but hasn’t said how much. Bloomberg Intelligence estimates that civil settlements could cost J&J as much as $15 billion overall. J&J says it has no liability because the products are safe.