The majority of the lawsuits that J&J faces involve claims that talc itself caused ovarian cancer, but a smaller number of cases allege that contaminated talc caused mesothelioma, a tissue cancer closely linked to asbestos exposure. The news agency said it showed the company, established in 1886, know of the positive tests, and that senior executives, mine managers, scientists, doctors and lawyers anxious about how to address the problem, while failing to disclose it to regulators or the public.
But now, years later, 11,700 plaintiffs have claimed the J&J's talc caused their cancers, forcing the firm to hand over memos, internal reports and other confidential documents to their lawyers. In a statement, the company said, "The Reuters article is one-sided, false and inflammatory".
Shares are down more than 9 per cent, the most severe decline since 2002.
Using court documents in the ongoing legal battle over J&J's talcum powders, Reuters reported that from 1971 to the early 2000s, J&J's managers, doctors and others communicated internally about certain talc tests turning up positive with asbestos, but they didn't disclose the results to regulators. "Studies of more than 100,000 men and women show that talc does not cause cancer or asbestos-related disease", it said. Juries in those cases awarded big sums to plaintiffs who blamed the talc products for causing their mesothelioma, a type of cancer. The cases include thousands of women with ovarian cancer.
Reuters found the company was aware of trace amounts of asbestos since at least 1971. "The scientific consensus is that the talc used in talc-based body powders does not cause cancer, regardless of what is in that talc".
The Reuters report says that J&J failed to inform the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that at least three tests from three different labs carried out between 1972 and 1975 had found asbestos in the brand's iconic baby powder product.
"This is true even if - and it does not - Johnson & Johnson's cosmetic talc had ever contained minute, undetectable amounts of asbestos".
"And while talc products contributed just $420 million to J&J's $76.5 billion in revenue past year, Baby Powder is considered an essential facet of the healthcare-products maker's carefully tended image as a caring company-a 'sacred cow, ' as one 2003 internal email put it".
Reuters said that while working on the story it contacted Johnson & Johnson, and though the company said it would make an expert available to Reuters, it did not.