NEW YORK • For years, pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson (J&J) has been grappling with lawsuits alleging that some of its talcum powder products caused cancer.
A lengthy investigation by the Reuters news agency, which reviewed thousands of company documents, showed the firm was aware of trace amounts of asbestos in it talc-based products since at least 1971.
Reuters reviewed J&J documents produced as part of the court trials, many of which had been shielded from view by court orders, reported BBC News. The documents showed the company marketed talc-based products that, at least between 1971 and the beginning of the 2000s, sometimes contained asbestos.
The company's executives, researchers, doctors and lawyers were aware but deliberately chose not to disclose this information and not to refer it to the authorities, according to the Reuters report.
According to Reuters, the documents also depict successful efforts to influence US regulators' plans to limit asbestos in cosmetic talc products and scientific research on the health effects of talc.
The Reuters report sent J&J's shares plunging 10 per cent on Friday. The decline erased about US$40 billion (S$55 billion) from the company's market capitalisation, with investors worrying about the impact of the report as it faces thousands of talc-related lawsuits.
J&J strenuously rejected the claims made in the article, calling it "one-sided, false and inflammatory". "Simply put, the Reuters story is an absurd conspiracy theory," it said in a statement.
"Johnson & Johnson's baby powder is safe and asbestos-free."
J&J said the lawyers in the cases have "cherry-picked" the memos, and that they instead show the company's focus on safety.
"Johnson & Johnson's talc has been tested by scientists at multiple entities since the early 1970s up to the present," said Mr Peter Bicks, a partner at Orrick, one of the law firms representing the company in the lawsuits. "None of these routine tests over the past 50 years detected the presence of asbestos."
He said the tests cited by the Reuters article were "outlier" results. In court, the firm has argued that some of the documents referred to industrial talc products.
For more than a century, J&J has promoted its baby powder as pure and gentle enough for babies' bottoms, a product that mothers can trust, made by a company that puts customers first.
The company's image, said The New York Times, has long been bound up in the product and its iconic white bottle, even though baby powder counts for only a sliver of overall sales. Its fragrance is said to be among the most recognisable in the world.
Legal cases against J&J have had mixed results, reported BBC. In July, it was ordered to pay US$4.7 billion in damages to 22 women who alleged that its talc products caused them to develop ovarian cancer. J&J is appealing against the decision.
Nearly 12,000 women have sued the company, with most claiming the talc in its well-known product Johnson's Baby Powder caused their ovarian cancer. They now have a new potential legal front, according to The New York Times.