Washington - The family of a US woman who died of ovarian cancer has been awarded damages of $72 million from Johnson & Johnson after claiming her illness was caused by the firm’s talcum powder.
Jackie Fox died last year after using two of the pharmaceutical giant’s talc-based products, Shower to Shower and Baby Powder, for more than 35 years.
A jury in the US said the company had failed to warn users of possible dangers despite the American Cancer Society raising concerns about a link between talc and ovarian cancer in 1999.
Most cancer experts say the link is unproven but many US manufacturers now prefer to use corn starch rather than talc.
Fox, who lived in Birmingham, Alabama, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer three years ago and died last October aged 62. Her son took over as plaintiff for the three-week trial following his mother’s death.
A jury in St Louis, Missouri awarded $10 million of actual damages and $62 million of punitive damages to her family after four hours of deliberation.
Allen Smith, the family’s lawyer, told the jury that the company would not “change their behaviour until good people like you act”.
Smith said the verdict had been warranted “given the horrible conduct of Johnson & Johnson”.
Speaking after the hearing, Krista Smith, the jury foreman, said of the firm: “It was really clear they were hiding something. All they had to do was put a warning label on.”
More than 1 000 people have sued the company – the world’s largest health products manufacturer – over its talc-based products, but the St Louis decision was the first time it has had to pay damages.
Carol Goodrich, a spokesman for Johnson & Johnson, said: “We have no higher responsibility than the health and safety of consumers and we are disappointed with the outcome of the trial.
“We sympathise with the plaintiff’s family but firmly believe the safety of cosmetic talc is supported by decades of scientific evidence.’
The company’s lawyer, Gene Williams, argued that the cause of the cancer was unknown. Some scientists have suggested talc particles may travel to the ovaries, triggering a process of inflammation that allows cancer cells to flourish, but there is little evidence to support the hypothesis.
Most studies suggesting a connection were found to be flawed and often relied on people recalling use of talcum powder many years previously. The only large study found no link to ovarian cancer.
Cancer Research UK states on its website that “the majority of the studies have not found a [smoking-like relationship] for talc use and ovarian cancer”.
Around 40 percent of women are believed to use talcum powder for reasons as diverse as making their own dry shampoo, thickening their eye lashes and even setting their make-up.
More than 6 000 women a year in the UK are diagnosed with cancer of the ovaries. The disease accounts for about five per cent of cancer deaths in women.
Sometimes called a ‘silent killer’, in many victims symptoms appear only once the disease is advanced.
A Johnson & Johnson spokesman said the company was considering whether to appeal.