I am rather stunned by this news story. Johnson and Johnson has been ordered to pay damages to a woman who claims her ovarian cancer was caused by using the firm’s talcum powder. First off, let’s get the science out of the way. The exact cause of any individual case of cancer simply cannot be determined with the current state of scientific knowledge. Even if there was a link between talc and cancer, it would not be possible to say that this woman was actually killed by it. The evidence that talc causes cancer is in any case not particularly convincing even by the standards of scare stories in general. So when the jury decided that Johnson and Johnson were responsible, they were to say the least being very original in their thinking.
It is impossible to prove a negative, so you can’t say for an absolute certainty that it is not the case that talcum powder causes cancer. But you can’t say a great many things with absolute certainty. There might be a shade of the colour pink that causes cancer if you look at it too often.
J&J are going to appeal, so the matter isn’t finally settled yet. But if the judgement is upheld this is going to have huge implications for the business. If you can get stung for millions of dollars if one of your customers gets cancer simply because you have used an ingredient that has been criticised by ill informed consumer groups, that is big. It isn’t as if talcum powder is anything very special. It is simply a mineral that has a nice soft feel. It is used as a powder as we all know, but also gets pretty widespread use in all sorts of products. There can’t be many people who haven’t been exposed to it, so anybody can file a suit for big bucks if they are diagnosed with cancer.
If the higher court upholds this judgement most firms in the business today are going to be liable. Most big companies have used talc at least somewhere in their range. And even if by a fluke they haven’t, there are plenty of other ingredients which are regularly accused of being linked to cancer. Being natural didn’t help talc, so this is as big a threat to the natural product sector as the rest of the industry. It seems inconceivable, but this ruling could radically change the nature of the products we all use. And it won’t be for the better. It will also presumably put up insurance premiums, so it won’t be for the cheaper either.