Professionalism/Johnson & Johnson's Response to the 1982 Tylenol Poisonings

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This chapter will detail various angles of the response to the 1982 Chicago area Tylenol poisonings. This unprovoked, seemingly random event sparked major public alarm and a public relations nightmare for Johnson & Johnson, the maker of Tylenol. The focus will be on the public's, Johnson & Johnson's, and the government's response to the murders and how each led to new legislation and safety precautions aimed at protecting American citizens.

Overview[edit | edit source]

Johnson & Johnson At-a-Glance[edit | edit source]

At the time of the 1982 Chicago area Tylenol killings, Johnson & Johnson owned Tylenol, the most successful over the counter drug product in the United States. Tylenol had over 100 million users and outsold Anacin, Bayer, Bufferin, and Excedrin combined[1] and accounted for over 15% of J&J's profits.[2]

Timeline[edit | edit source]

On September 29, 1982, 12 year old Mary Kellerman died from taking one Extra Strength Tylenol capsule after waking up sick. That same morning, Adam Janus took Tylenol and died shortly thereafter. To cope with their grief, Adam’s brother, Stanley, and sister-in-law, Theresa, ingested Tylenol from Adam’s bathroom, both dying within 48 hours. Soon, tampered Tylenol would claim the lives of Mary Reiner, Paula Prince, and Mary McFarland, bringing the total death toll to 7 innocent Chicagoans.

Potassium Cyanide[edit | edit source]

An immediate investigation was launched after two firefighters called in to report a possible connection between the deaths and Tylenol, having heard numerous radio reports detailing the incidents.

Tests showed that the victims had unknowingly ingested Extra Strength Tylenol capsules laced with potassium cyanide (KCN). KCN is an odorless, colorless substance that looks much like regular granulated salt. However, KCN can cause death within 45 minutes of exposure, commonly from cardiac arrest which most of the victims experienced.

Later reports said that the killer took several bottles of Tylenol off various drug store shelves, emptied the acetaminophen (the active ingredient in Tylenol) out of some capsules, filled them with KCN, and replaced the bottles back on the shelves. The killer used 65mg in each tainted capsule—10,000 times the needed dose to kill a human being.[3]

According to Dr. Thomas Kim, a physician working in the Chicago area at the time:

“The victims never had a chance. Death was certain within minutes”.[4]

Media Attention/Public Reaction[edit | edit source]

The national media focused intensely on the Tylenol murders, working it initially as deaths of American citizens by a trusted consumer product.[1] ABC, NBC, and CBS all led their broadcasts with the Tylenol story. More than 100,000 new stories ran in newspapers and on television. TV coverage, throughout the crisis, would continue to emphasize the deaths related to the story until more information was relayed to the press.[1]

The public listened to media reports and J&J press conferences and returned Tylenol bottles to police stations and drug stores, or else discarded them at home. The intense media attention caused nationwide panic. Several Chicago area hospitals received hundreds of phone calls about possible poisonings, with one logging 700 calls in one day. One doctor went as far to say:

"If it was going to be a lethal dose, you wouldn't have time to call".[4]

Johnson & Johnson's Reaction[edit | edit source]

Johnson & Johnson found itself in a very difficult position. One of its leading products killed seven people in a very concentrated area. The company had never established a permanent public relations division other than advertising and marketing. With quick thinking and help from police and the FDA, J&J made several brand-saving decisions in just weeks of the start of the crisis.

On October 5, 1982, seven days after the first reported death, Johnson & Johnson issued a nationwide recall of all Tylenol Extra Strength capsules. This included over 31 million bottles at an estimated retail value of over $100 million.[3] Their market share collapsed practically overnight from 35% down to 8%.[5] But by making this decision, Johnson & Johnson showed that they were not willing to take any risks with the public’s safety, even if it cost them millions of dollars.

In the days following the first death, J&J set up two 1-800 hotlines to deal with the massive panic and interest. One was set up for the general public for answering questions and fielding concerns of Tylenol users. The other was for news organizations that used a daily pre-recorded message with updated statements from the company.[6] CEO James Burke worked the national newsmagazines like 60 minutes and talk shows like The Phil Donahue Show to reach Americans efficiently.[1] Using TV allows the public to put a face to the problem, allowing J&J to shorten the distance some perceived J&J was putting between the company and the crisis.

In the weeks that followed, Johnson & Johnson continued making the good decisions working towards recovery. They worked closely with the Chicago Police Department, FBI, and FDA to find suspects. Customers were able to exchange Tylenol capsules for caplets, which are more difficult to tamper with. On November 11, 1982, Tylenol was reintroduced with a new, triple-sealed package. Tylenol became the first product in the industry to use a tamper resistant packaging.[1] This new sealing design made it nearly impossible for someone to tamper with the contents without being noticed.

They also coupled this recovery effort with heavy ad campaigns and price promotions where you could save up to $2.50 per bottle.[3] Television and newspaper advertisements proclaimed Tylenol as a brand you can “trust.” In less than a year, Johnson & Johnson’s market share had increased back up to 29%.[2] Within several years, Tylenol had once again become the most popular over-the-counter analgesic in the U.S.

Johnson & Johnson was able to remain in a positive light with the media and maintain great public relations with its swift actions. They continued to make improvements in quality control. Along with the tamper resistant packaging, J&J developed new random inspection procedures before the shipment of Tylenol to retailers. The Washington Post reported that, “Johnson & Johnson has effectively demonstrated how a major business ought to handle a disaster”.[7] As a result of Johnson & Johnson’s quick and effective decision-making skills, it gained one of the best reputations for safety and public wellbeing of any company out there today. Stephen Greyser of Harvard Business School said about the management of the crisis:

"It's been about as effective a rescue job as I've ever seen in marketing".[2]

Johnson & Johnson seemed to show a perfect example of how businesses should professionally and ethically react to crises. They placed human lives above profit and focused on long term sustainability. Johnson & Johnson quickly recalled Tylenol bottles and notified the public sufficiently to prevent further poisonings. Seeming to not be influenced by cost benefit analysis, Johnson & Johnson made the largest recall ever in the drug industry. A recall of this size and Johnson & Johnson's willingness to publicize the crisis proves their commitment to prioritizing human lives over profits. Johnson & Johnson's thorough reaction to the crisis cost incredibly high amounts of short term profits, but their thorough response allowed consumer confidence to reemerge and sustain long term profitability.

Government Response[edit | edit source]

The government responded to this tragedy with three goals in mind. The first set out to remove all contaminated bottles still in stores and homes. Second, they wanted to capture the murderer. Third, and most importantly, they wanted to prevent future "copy cat" murderers.

The FDA worked with Johnson & Johnson to successfully remove contaminated products from store shelves and in homes. Once local authorities and Johnson & Johnson found a connection between the murders and Tylenol the FDA worked with Johnson & Johnson to investigate Tylenol bottles sold in nearby stores. The investigation found 3 contaminated bottles, prompting the FDA and Johnson & Johnson to issue a total recall of Tylenol across the country.[1]

The FBI and local police worked with Johnson & Johnson to capture the murderer by implementing a nationwide manhunt. Handcuffed by few leads, the FBI investigated two primary suspects and a half a dozen secondary suspects. James H. Lewis became a primary suspect when he sent a hand written letter of extortion to Johnson & Johnson. He demanded Johnson & Johnson wire $1 million to a specified bank account if they wanted the Tylenol poisonings to stop. Johnson & Johnson immediately reported the letter to police instead of paying the $1 million to Lewis. The FBI searched for an evasive Lewis. After two months of searching, they found him residing in New York City.[2] Lewis was sentenced to 20 years for extortion, but prosecutors could not convict him for the Tylenol murders. Roger Arnold became the second primary suspect when reports surface that he had been telling Chicago tavern owners stories about killing people with cyanide. Police found a slew of weapons when arresting Arnold including chemistry books. One chemistry book, entitled “The Poor Man's James Bond,” explained how to poison a person with cyanide capsules. Arnold also worked in a Jewel Repackaging Factory that packaged Tylenol in Chicago for thirteen years. However, Arnold was never convinced for the Tylenol murders.[5] The investigation is ongoing, but has not produced a murderer.[3]

Congress passed the Tylenol Bill in May of 1983 to prevent future copy cat murderers. The bill made tampering with packaged products a federal offense.[8] The FDA also implemented new tamper resistant packaging regulations. The FDA required drug products contain a distinctive barrier to entry. Additionally, the FDA required each drug container to have a label explaining how the barrier to entry works. The two new regulations allowed users to easily tell if the drug container has been opened.[9]

Instantiation of the Tylenol Bill and new FDA regulations sparks an interesting ethical debate. The debate raises two questions. 1. Does the government have a responsibility to regulate product packaging? 2. Is government regulation of product packaging a necessary infringement on free market principles? Government is responsible for protecting its citizens from enemy states and terrorists. Those who tamper with manufactured products seem to be targeting the general civilian public. Moreover, they seem to increase public fear and harm civilians. Intentions to create fear and harm among the general public fall well within the definition of terrorists. Therefore, the government is responsible for protecting its citizens from package tampering terrorists. Protection of citizens from terrorist threats is a necessary infringement on free market principles.

Present Day[edit | edit source]

During the crisis, the Illinois Attorney General, Tyrone Fahner, said:

“We’ll get him one way or the other. Even nuts make mistakes. And if it’s some sort of screwball cult, they’ll turn on each other for the money”.[5]

Today, the case remains unsolved after more than 28 years. Johnson & Johnson’s offer of a $100,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the Tylenol killer is still on the table. As previously stated, several men were convicted of crimes related to the Tylenol murders, but not for the murders themselves.

Though in 2009, the FBI case related to Tylenol poisonings was re-opened. The Chicago bureau of the FBI searched James Lewis’s home in Cambridge, Massachusetts and seized several boxes worth of evidence and an old-style Macintosh computer.[10] According to an FBI statement, it was “conducting a complete review of all evidence…prompted, in part, by the recent 25th anniversary of this crime and the resulting publicity”.[11]

In 2010, in a further sign that investigators were still pushing to solve the case, James Lewis was ordered to provide fingerprint and DNA samples to authorities.[12]

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

This case teaches valuable lessons about ethical responsibilities of corporations and the government. Johnson & Johnson display a good example of how corporations should respond to a crisis. They are ethically responsible for putting the safety of their stakeholders before profits. Putting the safety of their stakeholders before profits may reduce short term profits but will likely ensure long term prosperity. The government has a duty to protect its citizens from terrorists. This case is an exceptional model of how corporations and government should work together to preserve the safety of the general public.

Further Reading[edit | edit source]

For cases where poor public relations management damaged a company's reputation:

References[edit | edit source]

  1. a b c d e f
  2. a b c d
  3. a b c d
  4. a b,9171,922991,00.html
  5. a b c
  6. Berge, T. (1990). The First 24-Hours. Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell, Inc.
  7. Knight, Jerry. (1982). Washington Post