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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Almanac/Tainted Tylenol

Air Date: Week of

This week, we have facts about the Tylenol tampering scare. Twenty years ago this week, seven people died after taking cyanide-laced capsules, setting off a nationwide recall of the pain reliever.


CURWOOD: Welcome back to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

[MUSIC: Think Tree, "Mamther," LIKE THE IDEA (Caroline Records, 1992]

CURWOOD: Twenty years ago this week, seven people in the Chicago area swallowed fatal doses of cyanide hidden in Tylenol capsules. With tens of thousands of the popular red and white capsules in homes, hospitals and schools, and no way of knowing the scope of the tampering, health officials feared a major crisis. And Johnson & Johnson, the maker of Tylenol, faced an unprecedented emergency.

With calls pouring in from thousands of panicked customers, executives had to decide: should they take a "wait and see" approach and hope the crisis would pass? Or, should they order a massive recall of one of their signature products? They decided on a recall, and within 48 hours, 31 million bottles of Tylenol were pulled from shelves.

Some in the pharmaceutical industry thought the scandal would force J&J to abandon Tylenol, but the public didn’t agree. Johnson & Johnson’s quick response was seen as putting people’s safety over the company’s bottom line. Customers came back in droves. In a few months, Tylenol capsules were reintroduced in, the now familiar, tamper-resistant packaging, the first of its kind.

The culprit was never caught. But, industry analysts say the response of Johnson & Johnson set the gold standard in corporate crisis management and responsibility. That’s this week’s Living on Earth Almanac.

[MUSIC: Think Tree, "Mamther," LIKE THE IDEA (Caroline Records, 1992]



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