Pharmaceutical giant Johnson &Johnson marketed its talcum-based powder products specifically to Black women despite evidence showing the products cause cancer, a new lawsuit alleges.
The complaint, filed by the National Council of Negro Women, asserts that the New Jersey-based drug company made Black women a "central part" of its business strategy but failed to warn them about the potential dangers of the powder products it was selling.
"This company, through its words and images, told Black women that we were offensive in our natural state and needed to use their products to stay fresh," said Janice Mathis, executive director of the National Council of Negro Women, in a statement.
"Generations of Black women believed them and made it our daily practice to use their products in ways that put us at risk of cancer — and we taught our daughters to do the same. Shame on Johnson and Johnson," she said.
The lawsuit is the latest in a wave of litigation against Johnson & Johnson over allegations that its talcum products, such as baby powder, have caused users to develop illnesses including ovarian cancer and mesothelioma. The company is facing more than 25,000 lawsuits related to the products and has set aside nearly $4 billion to fight the legal battles, according to The New York Times.
Johnson & Johnson has long maintained that its talcum-based products are safe and do not cause cancer. Last year, following a string of costly legal settlements, it stopped selling talcum products in the U.S. and Canada.
In a statement provided to NPR, the company denied the allegation that it singled out Black women as part of a marketing campaign driven by "bad intentions."
"The accusations being made against our company are false, and the idea that our Company would purposefully and systematically target a community with bad intentions is unreasonable and absurd," the statement read. "Johnson's Baby Powder is safe, and our campaigns are multicultural and inclusive."
According to the lawsuit, an internal presentation from 2006 suggested that Johnson & Johnson market its powder products, which had been lagging in sales, toward "high propensity consumers" such as Black women. Data showed that 60% of Black women were using baby powder at that time, compared with just 30% of the overall population.
Johnson & Johnson later hired a firm that handed out 100,000 gift bags containing powder products at churches and other locations in Chicago, launched a radio campaign in the Southern U.S. targeting "curvy southern women" and considered signing Patti LaBelle or Aretha Franklin as a spokesperson, among other efforts, the suit says.
The council, which said that a "large proportion" of its members used Johnson & Johnson powder products and that "many have developed ovarian cancer as a result," hopes a court will force the company to inform the Black women who were the targets of its marketing efforts about the possible dangers of using the company's powder products.