Targeted by Talc Marketing for Years, Studies Show Black Women Have a Higher Risk of Developing Ovarian Cancer | Causes, Not Just Cases®

A young mother and father, broad smiles across their faces, a plump baby resting comfortably in their arms — it’s an image we’ve seen countless times on television commercials, billboards and magazine ads for Johnson & Johnson baby products.

Decades-old images featuring families of color, however, have become the source of much scrutiny after a number of recent lawsuits revealed that the company seems to have orchestrated a plan in the 1990s to increase sales by “targeting” African-American and Hispanic women.

The assertion is particularly disconcerting when you consider that the company’s baby powder and other talc-based products allegedly to increase women’s risk of developing ovarian cancer by as much as 33 percent when used in the genital area. And it’s even more concerning when you factor in another recent study’s findings that Black women are at a higher risk of developing ovarian cancer through talc use compared to women of other races.  

In a column written for Time Magazine, Omise'eke Natasha Tinsleyis, an associate professor of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, examined why Black women may have been targeted for profit.

“Like pressing our hair and lotioning our legs, douching and deodorizing vaginas is something Black women teach our daughters and sister-friends teach our friends,” Tinsleyis wrote. “It’s part of Black women’s culture of self-care, one of many ways we love and nurture bodies nobody else seems ready to pamper.”

Questions About Whether Baby Powder Causes Cancer

Titled “Body Powder Use and Ovarian Cancer in African-Americans,” the study that explored Black women’s talc-related risk was conducted by a team of researchers led by University of Virginia professor Joellen Schildkraut. It claims to be the largest epithelial ovarian cancer case-control study focused on African-American women to date. It was supported by the National Cancer Institute, the Metropolitan Detroit Cancer Surveillance System, the National Institute of Health, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Medical University of South Carolina Hollings Cancer Center, and the Epidemiology Research Core.

The researchers interviewed 584 Black women who have been diagnosed with ovarian cancer and compared their cases with 745 other Black women without the disease. The women, ages 20 to 79, were selected from 11 southern, eastern and midwestern states: Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas.

After examining the women’s responses, the researchers found an increased risk of more than 40 percent in Black women who regularly used talcum powder on their genitals.

While one could say that companies’ marketing campaigns are always intended to appeal to a target demographic, in this situation, the allegations against Johnson & Johnson amount to something far more disturbing when you consider that Johnson & Johnson may have known about its products’ alleged carcinogenic properties even before they began marketing to this target audience.

Questions about whether Johnson & Johnson Knew

Among the evidence that has previously been presented in court against Johnson & Johnson is an internal letter dated September 1997. Written by a medical consultant, the letter suggested that Johnson & Johnson was well aware of the danger its products allegedly posed but chose to do nothing. If the risks are denied, the letter stated,"... the talc industry will be perceived by the public like it perceives the cigarette industry: denying the obvious in the face of all evidence to the contrary.”

The idea of a possible link between talc and ovarian cancer dates as far back as the 1960s, according to the FDA. And yet Johnson & Johnson denies, even now, that its products pose any danger. The company refuses to include a warning label alerting women to any potential danger in order for consumers to be able to make fully informed decisions for them and their families.

Johnson & Johnson boasts “more than a century of caring.” Unfortunately, the “Johnson & Johnson Family of Companies” may have repaid its loyal customers with inadequate warnings, deceptive marketing, and even the potential for development of deadly diseases.