Monday, August 2, 2021


Dear Readers,

Pieter Boone
Pick n Pay's new CEO

          In spite of the appalling history of Johnson & Johnson’s (J&J) baby powder Pick n Pay the South African 1945 store grocery chain has no intention of discontinuing to stock this giant US pharmaceutical company’s product.

          “We assure you that the talcum powder has been approved by the relevant authorities in South Africa,” Mary-Anne Hattingh Pick n Pay’s National Customer Service Manager told me. I wonder what sort of endorsement that is.

          For something like 50 years J&J was endangering  the lives of it’s customers by selling talc, including baby powder of all things that contained asbestos that has been shown to cause women ovarian cancer.

          As far back as 1973 the firm rejected the advice of its own scientists to replace the asbestos containing talc it was using with cornstarch. Like most big companies profit came before saving people’s lives as the talc was cheaper than the alternative.

          Now the Supreme Court in America has told J&J to pay heavily for its greed. It rejected the company’s appeal against an award of $2.1 billion in damages because its powder products caused women ovarian cancer.

          Ken Starr, a former prosecutor representing the women with cancer, urged the justices not to review the case saying that the firm had known “for decades that its talc powders contained asbestos, a highly carcinogenic substance with no known safe exposure level.”

          After I tried to contact Pick n Pay’s new CEO Pieter Boone I got Mary-Anne Hattingh instead and then quite unsolicited I received an email from somebody named only as Joy from J&J’s Consumer Services. This is what she told me:

          “We empathize with anyone suffering from cancer and understand that people are looking for answers. We believe these can be better understood through science – and decades of independent scientific studies by medical experts around the world shows that our talc is safe, does not contain asbestos and does not cause cancer.

          “We understand that lawsuits in the United States and media headlines have caused confusion about our products and we are committed to ensuring the facts are understood. The science supporting the safety of our product is central to why our Company continued to defend itself in court.”

           She admitted that J&J had discontinued the sale of its talc-based baby powder in the US and Canada, but claimed this had nothing to do with its safety. “It was rather to address declining demand in North America due in large part to changes in consumer habits fuelled by misinformation around the safety of the product through a constant barrage of litigation advertising”, she went on. Presumably this was to trace the people who claimed to have got cancer. She added that they do not offer a cornstarch-based product in South Africa, but its talc based baby powder is available and continues to be sold in other markets around the world.

          In a follow-up email she described the headlines I had been reading as “concerning” and again emphasised that their powder was “safe”.

          I replied: “This is very strange. How did various women manage to get a compensation judgement for billions against J&J because they claimed to have got ovarian cancer from its powder and when this went to appeal it was dismissed? That’s what I read on Google. If this is total fiction it must be one of the biggest fabricated stories of the century. What you keep telling me to read appears to be all about what J&J is claiming for its powder, not an independent assessment. And for you to describe the headlines I have been reading as ‘concerning’ must be the understatement of the decade considering you represent J&J. What really stands out is that at no stage have you told me that there is absolutely no truth in the ‘concerning headlines’ that I have been reading.”

          J&J’s already tarnished reputation over the cancer claims took another serious knock when it was among the drug companies that a group of US attorneys general obtained a $26bn settlement with for fuelling the deadly nationwide opioid epidemic. They were accused of lax controls that allowed a massive amount of addictive painkiller to be diverted into illegal channels, thus devastating communities. J&J was said to have down played the addiction risk in its marketing.

          All the companies denied the allegations. Attorneys general from 15 states were involved in negotiating the deals and the money will be used for addiction treatment, family support and efforts to eradicate the scourge of drug addiction.

          The bulk of the money will be paid by the three largest US distributors over 18 years with J&J paying $5-bn over nine years $3.7-bn of which has to be settled in the first three.

          “There’s not enough money in the world frankly to address the pain and suffering caused,” said the Connecticut attorney general William Tong.

With its history of serious unethical behaviour how can J&J be trusted to provide safe Covid vaccines to South Africa and the world? Will it be cutting corners to save money once again or will it have learnt its lesson.

Unfortunately we will only find out the answer after millions of people will have received the J&J one dose jab.

          Barron’s the American financial magazine listed J&J among its World’s Most Admired Companies and Fortune Magazine has included it in its list of World’s Most Respected Companies. I wonder where it will come now after these scandals.

          Alex Gorsky J&J’s Chairman and CEO was named one of the 100 most Inspired Leaders by Pharma Voice. He joined J&J, this 131 year old firm in 1988 and has headed it since 2012 so he deserves a great deal of the blame for what happened under his nose to a baby powder that has been in shops around the world. And the same goes for his firm’s dubious painkiller marketing.


Jon, a Consumer Watchdog who is always sniffing out funny business that needs exposing.

P.S. It’s absolutely deplorable the way huge companies that are often leaders in their field think about nothing else other than making a profit, even if it means devastating the lives of their customers. As this case proved BIG BUSINESS, far too often, doesn’t have the morals of an alley cat.

P.P.S. A few weeks ago, before I became aware of the background, I tried to buy some J&J baby powder in Pick n Pay and I was told there was no stock. I was mystified as to why they would not have such a well known brand. But as it turned out there was no question of Pick n Pay no longer stocking it because when I was there a couple of days ago the shelves were full of it.




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