Johnson & Johnson has been ordered to pay US$ 4.7 billion in damages to 22 women who alleged that its talc products caused them to develop ovarian cancer. A jury in the US state of Missouri initially awarded US$ 550m in compensation and added US$ 4.1bn in punitive damages.
The verdict comes as the pharmaceutical giant battles some 9,000 legal cases involving its signature baby powder. J&J said it was deeply disappointed and plans to appeal.
In the six-week trial, the women and their families said they developed ovarian cancer after using baby powder and other talc products for decades. Of the 22 women represented in this case, six have died from ovarian cancer.
Their lawyers alleged the company knew its talc was contaminated with asbestos since the 1970s but failed to warn consumers about the risks.
Talc is a mineral and can sometimes be found in the ground in close proximity to asbestos. J&J denied that its products ever contained asbestos and insisted that they do not cause cancer. The pharmaceutical giant added that several studies have shown its talc to be safe and said the verdict was a product of a fundamentally unfair process.
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) commissioned a study of a variety of talc samples, including J&J, from 2009 to 2010. It found no asbestos in any of them.
The prosecution lawyer told the Missouri court that the FDA and Johnson & Johnson had used flawed testing methods.
There have been concerns for years that using talcum powder, particularly on the genitals, may increase the risk of ovarian cancer - but the evidence is not conclusive.
The mineral talc in its natural form does contain asbestos and does cause cancer, however, asbestos-free talc has been used in baby powder and other cosmetics since the 1970s. But the studies on asbestos-free talc give contradictory results.
The charity Ovacome says the evidence for a link is weak but even if talc does increase the risk of ovarian cancer, studies suggest it would be only by around a third. It stresses this is a small increase in risk and, because ovarian cancer is a relatively rare disease, the increase in risk is small too.
Also, ovarian cancer risk is affected by many different factors - inherited and environmental ones - not just talc alone.
The charity adds: So even if talc does increase the risk slightly, very few women who use talc will ever get ovarian cancer. Also, if someone has ovarian cancer and used talc, it seems unlikely that using talc was the reason they developed the cancer.