Throughout generations, many black women have long been encouraged to use products like talc powder to maintain a superficial standard of hygiene. There are historical reasons why the traditions of vaginal deodorants, feminine sprays and douching exist in the black community. Indeed, a 2011 study found that black women are four times more likely to use these products than white women.
“For many recently emancipated African Americans, a clean and odor-free body signified personal progress and enterprise, and the hope for racial assimilation… The supposed malodor of African-American women was also linked to damaging sexual stereotypes that made Black women highly vulnerable to predation and violence”
Companies like Johnson & Johnson have preyed on the insecurities of black women by continuously marketing their talc powder without disclosing its risk of cancer or its carcinogenic ingredients.
In 1992, a Johnson & Johnson internal company memo years ago acknowledged potential cancer links. In the very same memo, there was a recommendation to “investigate ethnic (African-American, Hispanic) opportunities to grow the franchise,” as well as an aggressive marketing plan targeting these groups; noting that these women accounted for a high proportion of sales.
1971- the first study that singled talcum powder as a cancer risk was published. British researchers analyzed 13 ovarian tumors and found talc particles “deeply embedded” in 10.
1981- A study in the journal by Daniel Cramer, an epidemiologist at Brigham & Women’s Hospital in Boston, showed the first statistical link between genital talc use and ovarian cancer.
Twenty epidemiological studies have found that long-term perineal talc use increases the risk of ovarian cancer by about 33 percent.
Baby Powder is Big Business for Johnson & Johnson
Sales of Johnson & Johnson’s talcum powder products came to about $374 million in 2014, according to Euromonitor. That’s not essential to a $70 billion company that makes most of its money selling medical devices and drugs. But without Baby Powder, J&J may not have developed Baby Oil or Baby Shampoo nor have a baby division worth some $2 billion. Baby Powder’s value to the company extends well beyond sales.
Black Women Were Targeted Aggressively
Over ten years later, a task force devoted to improving sales of Shower & Shower, a mix of talc and cornstarch marketed to women, concluded: “African American consumers in particular will be a good target with more of an emotional feeling and talk about reunions among friends, etc., team up with Ebony Magazine.”
Promotions in churches, beauty salons, and barbershops were suggested with Patti LaBelle or Aretha Franklin as celebrity endorsers. (Neither of these women endorsed the brand.)
Their ads in the late 80s promised “just a sprinkle a day keeps odor away.”
The Black Women Affected
Jacqueline Fox was diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer at the age of 59 in 2013. Fox underwent chemotherapy to shrink the tumors and surgery to remove her uterus, ovaries, fallopian tubes, and part of her spleen and colon. Fox later learned of the link between ovarian cancer and baby powder through a law firm commercial. She had been sprinkling baby powder made from talc on her underwear every day since she was a teen.
“I was raised up on it,” she later said in a deposition. “They was to help you stay fresh and clean.?…?We ladies have to take care of ourselves.”
Her son notably said, “It has to be safe. It’s put on babies. It’s been around forever. Why haven’t we heard about any ill effects?”
Unfortunately, Fox passed away from the cancer in 2015. In February of this year, a St. Louis court ruled that Johnson & Johnson must pay $72 million to Fox’s family as the corporation was liable for gross negligence for failing to warn consumers of the cancer-causing products.
Over 1000 more women are currently suing Johnson & Johnson for concealing the risk of cancer within its talc-based products.