By Peter Loftus
Johnson & Johnson said Wednesday it received subpoenas from the U.S. Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission seeking documents related to the safety of its signature baby powder and other talc-containing products.
A J&J spokesman said the inquiries were related to news reports in December about product-liability lawsuits against the company, which caused J&J's stock price to fall sharply. J&J disclosed the subpoenas in an annual report filed Wednesday with the SEC.
The company said it would cooperate with the government inquiries and continue to defend itself in the product-liability litigation.
Sales of Johnson's Baby Powder are relatively small for J&J, which recorded $81.6 billion in total company sales last year. Yet the product, one of the few branded with the company's name, plays an important role shaping J&J's reputation.
The talc-powder litigation threatens J&J's carefully cultivated image. At least 13,000 lawsuits against the company claim that use of Johnson's Baby Powder and other talc products caused ovarian cancer and mesothelioma, as the lawsuits allege.
J&J says decades of testing have shown its baby powder is safe and asbestos-free, and that it doesn't cause cancer.
J&J, based in New Brunswick, N.J., has won some of the lawsuits that went to trial, but some juries have awarded large amounts of money to plaintiffs, including $4.7 billion in July to 22 women and their families. J&J is appealing the verdicts.
A Reuters article in December said that J&J knew for decades that its talc powder contained asbestos, but the company concealed it from regulators and the public. J&J has disputed information in the article, saying the company has cooperated fully with regulators and the various methods used by the company, regulators and independent experts to test the cosmetic talc have confirmed it is safe and asbestos free.
J&J lost about $50 billion in market capitalization in the days following the Reuters report. The stock has recovered some, trading up 5.7% year-to-date and closing Wednesday at $136.35.
In January, Sen. Patty Murray, (D., Wash.), a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, sent a letter to J&J CEO Alex Gorsky demanding information on what the company knew about potential asbestos in its talc products.
An SEC spokeswoman declined comment. The DOJ couldn't immediately be reached.
The American Cancer Society says some talc contains asbestos in its natural form, but talc used for cosmetic purposes is supposed to be free of detectable levels of asbestos. The organization says some studies have found a slightly increased risk of ovarian cancer in women who used talc powder, though other studies haven't found an increase.
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