New Delhi: India’s drug regulator has initiated a probe against Johnson and Johnson (J&J) following reports that the company knew about the presence of cancer-causing asbestos in its baby powder, but did nothing for decades. Mint analyses the implications.

What’s wrong with Johnson’s baby powder?

A Reuters report says internal documents of Johnson and Johnson Pvt. Ltd showed that its Johnson’s baby powder was sometimes tainted with carcinogenic asbestos, but it didn’t inform regulators or the public. At least on three occasions between 1972 and 1975, J&J did not tell the US Food and Drug Administration about the lab test results, which had found asbestos in its talc. Between 1971 and the early 2000s, the finished powder often tested positive for small amounts of asbestos. J&J executives, mine managers, doctors and lawyers fretted over how to address the problem, but did not disclose it to regulators.

What action are Indian authorities taking?

The Drugs Controller General of India (DCGI) has ordered Johnson and Johnson not to use talc raw material from its Mulund plant in Mumbai and Baddi unit in Himachal Pradesh for any production till further directions. On the directions of the Central Drugs Standard Control Organization (CDSCO), drug inspectors collected samples of Johnson and Johnson’s baby powder from both plants on Wednesday, amid reports that the product allegedly contained cancer-causing asbestos.

Is there cause for concern in India?

J&J was told to pay $4.69 billion in the case involving 22 women. Indian authorities have not received any complaint yet, but health hazards for Indian consumers can’t be ruled out.

Is this the first time the product has come under scrutiny in India?

In 2013, the Maharashtra Food and Drug Administration cancelled the licence of J&J’s Mulund facility after 160,000 packets of baby powder manufactured at the plant were found to have been sterilized with ethylene oxide, widely believed to cause cancer. Investigations found that the firm deviated from its usual practice of sterilizing baby powder. It was charged with multiple violations and the facility closed for three months. J&J later got a reprieve from the Bombay high court.

What is J&J’s reaction?

J&J says it will appeal the recent verdicts against it and maintains that its talc is safe and asbestos-free. A J&J spokesperson said studies conducted on more than 100,000 men and women show that the talc doesn’t cause cancer or any asbestos-related disease. “Thousands of independent tests by regulators and the world’s leading labs prove our baby powder has never contained asbestos," he said. J&J’s shares have been under pressure over concerns about its talc. Its stock fell about 10%, shaving off more than $45 billion in value.

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