Kirstyn Kedaitis - “Product Labeling: A Common and Ethical Practice”

As beaches receive more visitors, shark attacks increase. It’s a simple fact of life: once more people start frolicking on the sand, more sharks come out to play, and subsequently, more people are attacked by the aforementioned animals. But is the increased frequency of beachgoers the direct cause of the increase in shark attacks? Most likely not--correlation does not automatically prove causation. However, beaches still post shark warning signs in an attempt to provide beachgoers with the necessary information to make an informed choice of whether or not to use the beach.

Companies often also choose to inform their consumers by labeling their products with information about correlations that have been identified between the product and a particular outcome. Plastic bags are often printed with “WARNING--RISK OF SUFFOCATION,” and cigarette packages clearly state that using tobacco can cause a whole host of health problems. When companies choose not to communicate potential risks of product use to consumers, they open themselves up to both criticism and litigation. A perfect example of such a scenario is the case of Johnson & Johnson. This company has recently faced several lawsuits regarding their products containing talc, which multiple women claim have caused ovarian cancer after prolonged usage. Although this is a standard case of correlation versus causation, Johnson & Johnson’s decision not to highlight the known correlation between talc and cancer has cost them large sums of money for legal fees as well as consumer confidence in their brand. Given the existing correlation between talc and cancer, the industry precedent of labeling potentially harmful products, and the demands of their own code of conduct, Johnson & Johnson should start including warning labels on their products that contain talc.

Despite the fact that many professionals disagree on the specifics, the use of talc in products meant for the body certainly has a long history of scrutiny. Talc has been under fire since the 1960s, when it was discovered that asbestos, a chemical commonly found in talcum powder, could accumulate in ovaries and lead to cancer (Kember). Since then, studies surrounding talc have continued, though the results often contradict each other, and the debate over whether it is actually talc itself that is carcinogenic rages on. For example, the American Cancer Society does not definitively state that talc is a carcinogen, whereas the World Health Organization does indeed refer to talc as a carcinogen (Kosko). The differing views of these two major health-dedicated entities should, at the very least, raise eyebrows among those who work with or use talc, especially companies who plan on manufacturing products that use it. If an ingredient of a product is controversial, then it stands to reason that a product containing said ingredient could cause controversy, as well. Therefore, if Johnson & Johnson labels their products with a notice saying that some evidence has been found to link talc usage to cancer, they are not only informing consumers, but also effectively removing themselves from responsibility for what may happen to consumers who have used their product.

Some may argue that warning labels are not necessary when products are used responsibly, meaning that the product is being used as intended in a way that will not cause any sort of unforeseen risk to the consumer. Despite this, companies will often go to great lengths to warn consumers of the most seemingly obvious things in order to avoid any potential litigation. For example, packages of eggs may read “contains eggs,” or boxes of sleeping pills can state “may cause drowsiness.” These and other warnings are fruits of the large and ever-increasing amount of product liability cases, which cost companies millions of dollars in fees and losses (Nelson and Finneran). Had Johnson & Johnson simply opted to put a warning on their products in the first place, they may have been able to avoid lawsuits such as the ones they are currently battling. Choosing to put a label on their talc-containing products in the wake of this legal firestorm would allow the company to move forward and avoid similar accusations in the future. If consumers are warned about the correlation between a product and ovarian cancer, the company is absolved of any potential blame, and the consumer then would be fully responsible for their own actions.

Additionally, to conduct business in an ethical manner, it is only logical for Johnson & Johnson to put a warning label on a product containing talc. Johnson & Johnson’s Code of Business Conduct opens with a letter from Chairman and CEO Alex Gorsky, who writes that Johnson and Johnson has “a long history of ethical business practices” (Johnson & Johnson 5). Given the controversy surrounding talc as an ingredient in body care products, it follows that the “ethical business practice” in this circumstance would be to provide a warning for consumers in order to provide them with the knowledge they need to make an informed decision when it comes to choosing which product to buy.

If Gorsky’s statement does not do enough convincing, the Johnson & Johnson Code of Business Conduct further outlines a list of ethical duties that are the responsibility of every employee of the Johnson & Johnson family of companies. Among these duties are “upholding ethical, scientific and clinical standards” and, notably, “ensuring that what we say is truthful, not misleading, and is consistent with regulatory approvals for our products” (Johnson & Johnson 12). It is interesting to note that the company claims to strive to behave in an ethical way and avoid misleading consumers. Would not the most ethical and transparent course of action be to label a product that contains an ingredient that may or may not be linked to cancer? Failure to inform consumers that a product’s main component is considered a carcinogen by several medical professionals and a major healthcare-related organization certainly reads as unethical and misleading, which is in direct violation of the company’s own code of conduct.

Although correlation does not always prove causation, it is necessary for companies to realize when a correlation may be strong enough to land them in legal hot water. In the case of Johnson & Johnson, this realization came a bit too late--they have already lost millions of dollars due to lawsuits alleging that their talc-containing products have caused ovarian cancer, and more lawsuits are still pending. Talc itself has been the subject of controversy for many years, and a savvy company would know the effects of their products’ components. Given this controversy as well as the very clear precedent that has been set by other product liability cases, it is essential that Johnson & Johnson labels their products with a warning. Furthermore, Johnson and Johnson’s own Code of Business Conduct demands that all of its employees execute their tasks in a way that is ethical, honest, and transparent. Labeling their talc-containing products in a way that allows consumers to make an informed choice is an ethical way to continue profiting from these products while putting more responsibility and liability in the hands of consumers. Consumers do not need a product ripped from their hands in order to help themselves--they simply need enough knowledge to make an informed choice.