The verdict had been awarded to 22 women who had contracted ovarian cancer from asbestos in the company's baby powder and talc products.

In his ruling, Missouri Circuit Court Judge Rex Burlison cited “particularly reprehensible conduct” by Johnson & Johnson. He said senior executives within the pharmaceutical giant “knew of the presence of asbestos in products that they knowingly targeted for sale to mothers and babies, knew of the damage their products caused, and misrepresented the safety of these products for decades.”

On 14 December, Reuters released an in-depth report saying that mine managers, doctors, lawyers and executives within the company knew for decades that its powder had sometimes been tainted with carcinogenic asbestos. Further, the report said that the company had withheld that information from consumers and regulators.

Johnson & Johnson’s share price has plummeted recently

Shares in Johnson & Johnson tumbled 10% in the wake of the news and wiped around US$50 billion from the company’s value, its worst one day sell-off in 16 years. It continued to fall after the judge’s ruling.

Johnson & Johnson called the Reuters report “an absurd conspiracy theory” and said it was undaunted by its latest legal setback. “The same judge has denied similar motions on prior verdicts in his court that were ultimately overturned by the appellate courts. We are confident this verdict will also be overturned on appeal,” it said in a statement.

The company took out a full page ad in The New York Times to assert its innocence. It also denied the Reuters’ claims on its website. “J&J’s baby powder is safe and does not cause cancer,” a statement read. “Studies of tens of thousands of women and thousands of men show that talc does not cause cancer or asbestos-related disease.

“For decades, J&J’s baby powder has repeatedly been tested for asbestos and been found not to contain asbestos.”

The company also said it had cooperated with the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) and other regulators internationally and asbestos had never been found in either it cosmetic talc sources or its processed talc.

International scrutiny on Johnson & Johnson’s baby powder and talc products

At trial in July, however, a jury awarded US$550 million in compensatory damages and US$4.14 billion in punitive damages against the company.

Johnson & Johnson is facing thousands of lawsuits internationally from more than 11,000 plaintiffs, including a number of women alleging the talcum powder caused their ovarian cancer. Another group of litigants is alleging that contaminated talc caused mesothelioma, a tissue cancer associated with asbestos exposure.

The World Health Organization and the American Cancer Society both list asbestos as a carcinogen even at trace levels.

The company is also facing increased scrutiny from regulators with regulators in India seizing baby powder for testing on 19 December. Around 100 drug inspectors were involved in examining manufacturing facilities, wholesale outlets and distributors.

“On the basis of the news report, we are alerting staff to pick up samples. We will test them in a drug control lab here,” Regional Drug Officer Surendranath Sai.

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