According to internal company documents, Johnson & Johnson marketing campaigns for Baby Powder and Shower to Shower were focused primarily on women who were African-American, Hispanic, and/or overweight. Current lawsuits allege that the talc contained in these products was the reason plaintiffs developed cancer.

Last December, a Reuters investigation found that J&J had long been aware of asbestos contamination in the raw talc used in its products, based on test results going back almost 50 years. However, the company did not disclose that information to consumers or to regulators.

Several media sources have now reported on J&J’s marketing efforts that were focused on “curvy Southern women” and those of African-American ancestry. Those efforts began only 2 years after the World Health Organization’s International Agency on Cancer Research (IARC) classified the perineal use of talc as “possibly carcinogenic” – something with which J&J continues to disagree. Two decades earlier, the IARC classified talc contaminated with asbestos fibers as being “carcinogenic to humans.”

That wasn’t the first time health experts had expressed concerns about Baby Powder, however.

During the 1950s and 60s, medical journals published a series of studies on the health hazards of breathing talc. In response, pediatricians began recommending that parents start switching to cornstarch or baby oil for treating diaper rash. Then, in 1966, the American Journal of Diseases of Children published a study reporting infant fatalities “following the aspiration of talcum powder.” The study noted that talc is “usually mixed with other silicates, such as serpentine, tremolite and anthophyllite” – all of which are forms of asbestos. In their conclusion, the authors wrote that there was “no justification” nor medical purpose for the use of talc on infants.

Over the next few decades, as sales to parents declined, J&J began targeting teens and adults, with slogans such as “It’s a feeling you never outgrow,” and repackaging of the product as “Shower to Shower.” Nonetheless, sales continued to decline, to the point that J&J was concerned about consumers giving up on the product. In recent years, Baby Powder has accounted for under 1 percent of the company’s massive revenues. However, according to a marketing presentation made 20 years ago, Baby Powder is considered vital to J&J’s carefully cultivated “Most Trusted Brand in America” image.

Targeting African-American and overweight women was a response to stagnating sales in the face of “negative publicity from the health community.” J&J’s sales and marketing department noted that 60 percent of African American women were using J&J’s talc products, along with women trying to lose weight. It was necessary for the company to come up with a “new business model” targeting groups who tended to purchase Baby Powder the most.

It is worth noting that shortly after the IARC determined that talc was a possible carcinogen, J&J’s talc supplier, Imerys America, began notifying its customers about IARC concerns. When asked during a deposition in a recent case if Imerys was aware that J&J had not shared the information with its own customers, a company executive replied, “It is not our job to tell our customers what to do with their products.”

K.J. McElrath is a former history and social studies teacher who has long maintained a keen interest in legal and social issues. In addition to writing for The Ring of Fire, he is the author of two published novels: Tamanous Cooley, a darkly comic environmental twist on Dante's Inferno, and The Missionary's Wife, a story of the conflict between human nature and fundamentalist religious dogma. When not engaged in journalistic or literary pursuits, K.J. works as an entertainer and film composer.