As retailers pull Johnson & Johnson’s recalled talc-based baby powder from their shelves over reports of asbestos contamination, one competitor has yanked the mineral from its product altogether.
Bausch Health Cos. Inc., maker of Shower to Shower powder, said it reformulated the product last year to replace talc with corn starch as the active ingredient, company officials said Tuesday. The last lot of its talc product was distributed in February, they said. The firm hadn’t previously disclosed the switch.
“Bausch Health changed formulations for Shower to Shower to keep the product in line with market trends and customer preferences,” Lainie Keller, a company spokeswoman, said in an emailed statement. “This formula change was not made due to any safety concerns.”
The revelation about Shower to Shower’s talc removal came after J&J recalled a single lot of baby powder last month after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration found trace amounts of asbestos in one 22-ounce bottle. J&J officials later said retesting showed no trace of the carcinogen in the 33,000-bottle lot, but regulators stuck to their contamination finding.
CVS Health Corp., Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc. and Rite Aid Corp. have pulled all 22-ounce baby powder off their shelves while Walmart Inc. has pulled bottles from the affected lot. Shower to Shower hasn’t been recalled, Keller said.
Shower to Shower used to be made by J&J. Valeant Pharmaceuticals Inc., Bausch’s predecessor, bought the rights to the product in 2012 for $150 million, government records show.
Both J&J and Bausch have been accused in lawsuits of hiding evidence that their talc-based products are laced with asbestos, which can cause cancer. Both companies deny their powders contain the carcinogen. Bausch has an indemnity agreement with J&J signed in April covering any pending talc litigation, it said in government filings.
Talc has long been the primary ingredient in such powders because the mineral keeps skin dry and prevents diaper rash. It’s also used in consumer products such as makeup and paint. But geological formations containing talc also yield asbestos, a mineral once used in products such as building insulation. Some companies have found corn starch can offer the same benefits of talc without the asbestos risk.
Juries have punished J&J over its handling of its baby powder, including one in St. Louis last year that ordered the world’s largest maker of healthcare products to pay about $4.7 billion to more than 20 women who blamed their cancers on the product. That verdict is being appealed. J&J has won some cases.
“It’s not appropriate for us to comment on the decision of another company,” Ernie Knewitz, a J&J spokesman, said Tuesday about Bausch’s decision to dump the talc from Shower to Shower. “Decades of clinical evidence support the safety of Johnson’s Baby Powder.”
New Brunswick, New Jersey-based J&J has offered a corn starch alternative to its talc-based baby powder since 1980.
Lawyers for women who blame tainted baby powder for their cancers say J&J should follow Bausch’s move to pull talc out of its powder or put a warning on its iconic white bottle.
“While choosing to not inform consumers of the reformulation of a former J&J product, at least the new seller of Shower to Shower has made a responsible decision to remove talc from the product,” Ted Meadows, one lawyer for the women, said in an emailed statement. “Thus far, J&J has refused to take a similar step to protect the public and stop the production of talc-based Baby Powder.”
Bausch may not have publicized its reformulation of Shower to Shower because it didn’t want to undermine its legal defenses in the existing talc cases, said David Logan, a law professor at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island.
“They may have been worried that if they announced they were taking talc out of the product, it could be used against them in the lawsuits they face,” Logan said.
Bridgewater, New Jersey-based Bausch disclosed in U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filings that it currently has 12 talc suits pending against it after more than 100 others were dismissed, mostly on procedural grounds.
By removing talc from Shower to Shower, Bausch may be trying to wall-off their liability for asbestos claims, said Elizabeth Burch, a University of Georgia law professor who teaches about mass torts.
“This is clearly a move to cabin their talc liability,” Burch said. “It starts the clock running” on procedural rules governing how much time a plaintiff has to file a claim, she said. The talc removal also is a safeguard for Bausch if questions arise about what the J&J indemnity agreement covers, she added.
J&J and Bausch officials wouldn’t say whether there’s a dispute over the extent of the indemnity agreement or if Bausch is barred from publicly commenting on the talc-removal move. According to SEC filings, J&J is responsible for covering Bausch’s liability, including attorneys fees and costs, for any talc lawsuits over Shower to Shower until March 2020.
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