ST. LOUIS -- A fifth high-profile trial over allegations that Johnson & Johnson talc powder products are linked to ovarian cancer got under way Tuesday, with plaintiff’s attorney Allen Smith arguing that the company put profits over its corporate responsibility.
“This is a very important case that has far-reaching consequences and deals with life-and-death matters,” Smith told jurors in his opening statement. “This case is about corporate profit and maintaining a corporate image over human life.”
Courtroom View Network is streaming coverage of the trial.
The trial marks the fifth trial in which J&J, makers of Baby Powder and Shower to Shower, has defended itself against women plaintiffs who said their use of the powder on genital areas led to increased risks of ovarian cancer. A jury sided with J&J’s defense in March, but plaintiffs in three previous cases won multimillion-dollar judgments against J&J.
Those three plaintiff victories all occurred in the courtroom of St. Louis Judge Rex Burlison, the 22nd Circuit Court judge who is presiding over the current case. The latest trial examines the plight of a 61-year-old Virginia woman, Lois Slemp.
Smith said Tuesday that talc particles can move through genital areas and reach women’s ovaries, representing a pathway to cancer that is supported by epidemiological studies. J&J’s talc products also contain three carcinogens -- asbestos, heavy metals and talc -- he said.
“Johnson & Johnson has never warned the public about this hazard,” Smith told jurors, even though studies suggesting a link to cancer go back decades. Ten percent of ovarian cancer diagnoses result from the genital use of the J&J products, Smith said.
But J&J attorney Orlando Richmond, a former Marine Corps judge advocate, said his client has been hauled into court based on bogus claims and that its products have been unfairly attacked and vilified.
“It’s unfounded, unfair and is not going to go unrebutted,” Richmond said. “This is going to be a fight.”
Richmond described talc as the softest mineral on earth and said it has been used in baby powders for more than a century. And respected government agencies that act as watchdogs for the health of Americans have repeatedly found the product safe, he said.
Neither the Food and Drug Administration, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) nor the National Cancer Institute has found that talc poses a risk factor for ovarian cancer, he said. In fact, Richmond pointed out that the CDC recommends the use of talc to treat genital warts.
“Above all else, this (courtroom) is the one place for evidence, not allegations or insinuations,” he said.
But Smith, an attorney with the Talc Litigation Group based in Mississippi, said a 1982 epidemiological study – analyzing links between substances and disease – found statistically significant data identifying talc as a trigger for ovarian cancer. And studies from reputable sources, including Harvard University, back up that conclusion, he said.
Smith pointed out that the condom industry phased out the use of talc on condoms in the 1990s, citing health concerns. “After 1996, they removed it from condoms because of ovarian cancer risks,” he said.
And the FDA does not pre-approve cosmetic substances, Smith said, arguing that the federal agency mostly allows the industry to self-regulate.
The plaintiff’s attorneys will also show through internal company documents from J&J and Imerys Talc America Inc., J&J’s talc supplier, that the companies worked behind the scenes to prevent talc regulation, he said. Indeed, they followed the playbook used by the tobacco and asbestos industries to head off government regulation of the mineral, Smith said.
Imerys is also a defendant in the current case.
In internal documents, the mantra of the defendants has consistently been, “It’s time to create more confusion,” said the plaintiff’s attorney, who characterized J&J Baby Powder and Shower to Shower as a key part of the wholesome image the company projects.
Richmond, however, denied there is any link between talc and the medical problems suffered by Slemp, who was diagnosed with serous borderline tumors, which tend to have a low malignancy rate but account for 15 to 20 percent of ovarian surface tumors.
“Baby Powder and Shower to Shower are not responsible for Ms. Slemp’s disease. Period,” he said, indicating that cohort studies that examine thousands of healthy people and how they fare medically over time have shown no link between the use of talc and an increased risk of ovarian cancer.
Richmond also said that the plaintiff’s medical experts have often downplayed the link between talc and ovarian cancer prior to being retained by the plaintiff’s attorneys.
Attorney Jane Bockus, who represents Imerys, stressed to jurors in her opening remarks that talc is safe and ubiquitous, being found in such products as shampoo, toothpaste, eyeliner, fact powder, car tires, paper, food seasonings and breath freshener.
Bockus also countered the claim that talc caused Slemp’s ovarian tumors. She had previously endured two heart attacks and smoked for 38 years, the attorney said, adding that Slemp was also diabetic and has high blood pressure.
And she pointed out that the International Agency for Research on Cancer characterizes hot dogs, red meat and solar radiation as much greater cancer risks than talc.
“At the end of the day, the dots will not be connected,” Richmond said of the alleged links between talc and ovarian cancer.
But Smith urged jurors to punish the defendants’ conduct to prevent deadly health risks in the future – by hitting the companies with damages awards that match the suffering that Slemp and other women have sustained.