The New York Times obit for Lawrence Foster, former VP-PR of Johnson & Johnson who died on Oct. 17, is headlined “Lawrence G. Foster Dies at 88; Helped Lead Tylenol Out of Cyanide Crisis.”
The murders of seven Chicago area people via poisoned Tylenol Extra Strength capsules were discovered on Thursday, Sept. 30, 1982 and Friday, Oct. 1, 1982.
J&J at first confined a recall to two Tylenol lots that were distributed in the Chicago area. Both J&J and the Food & Drug Administration on Oct. 1 told the public not to consume any Tylenol products. The nationwide withdrawal of the products did not take place until the next Tuesday, Oct. 5.
By that time, almost every store in the U.S. had long since removed any Tylenol products from their shelves.
CEO James Burke spent the Oct. 1-3 weekend at Middlebury College, Vt., where his son’s college was having “parents’ weekend.” He took his son and eight classmates to dinner and asked them what J&J should do in the wake of the seven murders.
Competitors Kept Capsules
Burke and J&J knew that tablets were completely safe and dissolved just as fast in the stomach as capsules, but both were also aware that “going it alone” on tablets would put Tylenol at a competitive disadvantage.
J&J, faced with another death-by-Tylenol situation in 1986, when 23-year-old Diane Elsroth of Peekskill, N.Y., took cyanide-laced Tylenol capsules, immediately said it would no longer sell anything in capsules.
However, the Proprietary Assn., whose members market nonprescription drugs, announced on Feb. 19, 1986 that it would not follow J&J’s lead in pulling capsules from the market.
John Walden, spokesman for the group, said "There is no intention by this committee to walk away from capsules." Instead, he said, it would further explore “the tamper-resistance of over-the-counter drugs.”
Guaranteeing safety was something that was both cheap and easy to do -- stop selling anything in capsules that could easily be taken apart and contaminated one way or another.
Excedrin, Sudafed Used in Murders
Among companies that continued to market capsules was Bristol-Myers, whose Extra Strength Excedrin capsules were used in June 1986 to murder Bruce Nickell, husband of Stella Nickell. Police found the capsules to be laced with cyanide and Bristol-Myers initiated a nationwide recall. Stella Nickell was later convicted of murder and sentenced to 90 years in prison. She will be eligible for parole in 2018.
In another instance of murder by capsule, Joseph Meling, 31, was convicted of murdering two people in 1991 who had taken Sudafed decongestant capsules laced with cyanide and placed on store shelves. He was sentenced to life in prison. Meling was attempting to murder his wife via poisoned capsules.
The NYT obit claims that J&J put “consumer safety first” but it appears it put profitability first.
The obit says that the company reintroduced the brand “two months later in ostensibly tamper-proof packaging” when the introduction was less than six weeks later (Nov. 11).
Media Response Praised
The obit also claims that J&J’s approach was to “respond to the media with alacrity” when it did not have a press conference following the 1982 murders. J&J officials were never questioned in the open when topics such as distribution channels, possible enemies of the company, and the alternative of only selling drugs in safe tablet form could have been discussed.
J&J took a “Who Me?” approach, inferring that this was something that happened to another company.
Foster is quoted in the obit as saying, “We’re going to tell them what we know, and we’re not going to tell them what we don’t know. We’ll tell them we don’t know, and we’ll get back to them when we do know.”
That is a description of corporate stonewalling.
J&J was notorious for its lack of cooperation with reporters. ABC-TV reporter Karen Ryan told a group of PR people in New York in 1983 that J&J “wouldn’t give us the time of day” before the Tylenol crisis. “It was like pulling teeth to get anything out of the PR dept.,” she said.
Camera crews would show up at J&J for scheduled interviews only to be cancelled at the last moment, she added.
To underscore its lack of involvement, J&J only offered a reward of $100,000 and ordered all employees not to send any gifts to the families of the seven victims.
WSJ Also Reports “Tamper-Proof”
The Wall Street Journal, reporting that the FBI has turned over investigation of the 1982 murders to Chicago area police, incorrectly said that J&J had introduced “tamper-poof packaging” following the murders when the company never used such a phrase.
Reiner obtained her Tylenols from the hospital dispensary, a fact that flies in the face of the claim that an insane person went from store to store with poisoned Tylenol bottles.
Rosen said the WSJ story failed to reflect her view that the poisonings took place somewhere in the distribution chain.
“Lot numbers and evidence proves the tainted capsules must have come from the distribution chain. I am convinced this information is being suppressed to relieve J&J of liability. At this point, 31 years, that I have been waiting for this case to be solved, we can only hope for the investigative documents to be unsealed.”
The Tylenol Mafia, by ex-J&J employee Scott Bartz, describes the numerous hands that could be on Tylenol ingredients in their path from the company to retail outlets.
NYT has been the most ardent of all media in praising J&J’s actions in the wake of the murders.
“Tylenol made a hero of J&J: The recall that started them all,” was the headline on a story in the March 22, 2002 NYT by Judith Rehak.
Peter Goodman, writing in the Aug. 21, 2010 NYT, said J&J’s PR in the wake of the 1982 murders was “Exhibit A in the lesson book on forthright crisis management.”
Reporter Natasha Singer on May 3, 2010, praised J&J for its “fast and adept” handling of PR after the 1982 murders.
NYT Mentions “Tamper-Proof”
The NYT obit at first says Tylenols were re-introduced in “ostensibly tamper-proof packaging.”
The next-to-the-last paragraph of the obit is as follows:
“In 1986, in an eerie reprisal of the 1982 killings, a Peekskill, N.Y., woman died after ingesting a cyanide-laced Tylenol capsule, and the company responded again with an eye to consumer safety. In a news conference, Mr. Burke, the chairman, said that the company could no longer guarantee that its over-the-counter capsule products were tamper-proof, announced that it would replace Tylenol capsules with oval-shaped tables known as caplets.”
A key point in the paragraph is that the murdered Elsroth is not mentioned by name, a characteristic of how the business press and business pages of newspapers covered the story—a dehumanization of this tragedy and an obsession about how Tylenol’s market share was faring.
“Tamper-proof” is not a phrase that J&J ever used.