In 2006, the year an arm of the World Health Organization began classifying cosmetic talc products like Baby Powder as “possibly carcinogenic,” Johnson & Johnson launched a discriminatory campaign to boost sliding sales. The aim? Selling more Baby Powder products to overweight and African American women.
The revelations were part of an in-depth probe by Reuters, which reviewed thousands of pages of internal documents from Johnson & Johnson to uncover a pattern of discrimination against women of color, among others.
The campaign dates back to 2006, when a Johnson & Johnson presentation encouraged the company’s salesforce to sell Baby Powder in “under developed geographical areas with hot weather, and higher AA population” — with “AA” standing for African-Americans.
The timing of the presentation coincided with the rollout of new labeling on some talc products warning of cancer risks. Fearing the effect of the cancer warnings on Baby Powder sales, Johnson & Johnson marketers noted that “AA consumers” still used the product, and “this could be an opportunity.”
The company launched a print, digital, and radio marketing blitz. It teamed up with Weight Watchers to target overweight women, and handed out Baby Powder samples in beauty salons and churches in African-American and Hispanic neighborhoods, as the Reuters investigation found.
Scientific studies have linked talcum, the chief ingredient in Johnson & Johnson’s Baby Powder, to ovarian cancer. The European Union has deemed talcum as too dangerous for use in cosmetics, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has determined that the body of evidence on talcum’s dangers is insufficient.
Last year, Reuters revealed that Johnson & Johnson had known since the early 70s — but kept secret from the public and regulators — that its raw talc and Baby Powder products occasionally contained small quantities of cancer-causing asbestos.
Johnson & Johnson has faced a wave of lawsuits in recent years alleging talcum powder causes cancer and that the powder contains cancer-causing asbestos.
Featured photo by Suad Kamardeen on Unsplash