Johnson & Johnson knew its baby powder had asbestos for decades

J&J's shares fell nearly 8% on Friday after Reuters reported the company knew of asbestos in its talc

"Plaintiffs' attorneys out for personal financial gain are distorting historical documents and intentionally creating confusion in the courtroom and in the media", Ernie Knewitz, J&J's vice president of global media relations, wrote in an emailed response to Reuters' findings.

On Friday, as news of the investigation spread, Shares of Johnson & Johnson fell by more than six per cent, on track to post their biggest percentage drop in more than a decade.

Johnson & Johnson, facing potential liability in the billions of dollars in claims its talcum powder causes cancer, may have known about the health risks of the product for decades, according to Reuters. The company has won several recent court cases allaging liability and damages, and is appealing other judgments, including $4.6 billion awarded in July to 22 women who claimed its product caused their ovarian cancer.

The company's executives, researchers, doctors and lawyers were aware but deliberately chose not to disclose this information and not to refer it to the authorities, according to the report.

The New Brunswick, New Jersey company has battled in court against such claims and on Friday called the Reuters report "one-sided, false and inflammatory".

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The documents Reuters got ahold of showed that scientists working at Johnson & Johnson or with outside labs found that there was sometimes a small amount of asbestos or used language typically used to explain the contaminant.

Of the thousands of lawsuits, J&J has won some of the cases, CNBC noted. The documents, shared with lawyers, reveal that a total of 11,700 plaintiffs are now claiming that the company's talc caused their cancers - including thousands of women with ovarian cancer. In a major setback to the company, St. Louis jury in July had awarded almost $4.7 billion in total damages to 22 women and their families after they claimed asbestos in Johnson & Johnson talcum powder contributed to their ovarian cancer in the first case against the company that focused on asbestos in the powder.

A new report from Reuters said Johnson & Johnson knew its talc powder contained asbestos but didn't alert consumers.

J&J were sued in 1999 by Darlene Coker, who believed that her terminal mesothelioma, a form of cancer caused by exposure to asbestos, was caused by using baby powder.

"In our opinion litigation overhangs are real, and we do not minimize the situation, but the stock pull back does seem over done to us", BMO Capital Markets analyst Joanne Wuensch said.

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