J&J Takes a Powder With Talc Announcement

Thom Weidlich 05.21.20


Johnson & Johnson’s stunning proclamation this week that it will stop selling its talc-based baby powder in the U.S. and Canada raises several issues about crisis communications and about transparency — most brought up by the careful language in the press release itself.

J&J faces nearly 20,000 lawsuits arguing the talc-based powder causes cancer, including ovarian cancer, which have brought billions of dollars in adverse jury verdicts and have hurt its reputation. The company has strongly denied the allegations and continues to do so.

So the announcement about pulling the item required some delicate wording.

Parsing the New Brunswick, New Jersey-based company’s May 19 statement is a little hard in that we don’t know with certainty its reason for the move. Is it admitting defeat from the lawsuits? “The decision to wind down sales of the product is a huge concession for Johnson & Johnson,” The New York Times wrote.

J&J begins its four-paragraph press release by seemingly citing COVID-19 as a cause of the decision. The wording here is strange. J&J notes that in March, in response to the pandemic, it “stopped shipping hundreds of items in the U.S. and Canada to prioritize high-demand products and to allow for appropriate social distancing in” its facilities.


“The decision to wind down sales of the product is a huge concession for Johnson & Johnson.”

— The New York Times

It has now decided, it says, to “permanently discontinue” about 100 of those “as well as” (our emphasis — not including) talc-based Johnson’s Baby Powder. So the product wasn’t part of the COVID-related March list, but the statement begins by talking about those cuts. Is J&J saying its re-examination of its entire offering caused it to take another look at its baby powder? How much can we infer that the heat from the lawsuits got to be too much?

Stock Price

Right after this, the company’s concern is obviously its shareholders. “Johnson’s Baby Powder represents approximately 0.5 percent of the total U.S. Consumer Health business,” it notes. Translation: This won’t affect our stock price.

It then says that demand for the talc-based powder in North America “has been declining due in large part to changes in consumer habits and fueled by misinformation around the safety of the product and a constant barrage of litigation advertising.”

So J&J is at least admitting the lawsuits are affecting sales. But it’s not backing down from defending the powder. “Decades of scientific studies by medical experts around the world support the safety of our product,” it writes. It says it will carry on fighting the lawsuits and the “unfounded allegations.”

J&J ends the press release by stating that existing inventory will be sold until it’s off the shelves and that its cornstarch-based version (which, according to The New York Times, it developed in 1980 in response to the talcum claims) will remain available in North America. Both types will continue to be sold in other countries, “where there is significantly higher consumer demand for the product,” it says.

That the talc version will be available elsewhere leads one to believe the move may really be about sagging sales. But the announcement inspired a headline and a lead with a twist from the UK-based BBC News, whose story was otherwise typical. The headline: “J&J to Sell Baby Powder in UK Despite US Stoppage.”

Photo Credit: Nonowon/Shutterstock

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