The Johnson & Johnson Tylenol Controversies

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Case Details:

Case Code : BECG015
Case Length : 13 Pages
Period : 1975 - 2001
Pub. Date : 2002
Teaching Note : Available
Organization : Johnson & Johnson
Industry : Drugs and Pharmaceuticals
Countries : USA

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This case study was compiled from published sources, and is intended to be used as a basis for class discussion. It is not intended to illustrate either effective or ineffective handling of a management situation. Nor is it a primary information source.

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"We should encourage physicians to talk with their patients about all the risk factors, while at the same time, finding more ways to educate the public about this avoidable risk."

- Robert Fontana, Asst. Prof., University of Michigan Health System, talking about Acetaminophen-related liver and kidney problems.

Tylenol Deaths

In September 1982, a 12-year-old girl, Mary Kellerman of Chicago, US died after taking extra strength Tylenol for headache. Three more people, Adam Janus, his brother and sister-in-law died on the same day after taking extra strength Tylenol.

Three more deaths were reported on the next day due to Tylenol. The news of the incident spread quickly causing a nationwide panic. Responding to the crisis, Johnson and Johnson (J&J)1 recalled 31 million bottles of extra strength Tylenol worth over $100 million from all retail stores in the US. In addition, the company offered to exchange tablets for capsules at no extra cost for all customers. According to an analyst, J&J suffered a loss of $1.24 billion due to the depreciation of the company's brand value. Tylenol's share fell from 37% of the US analgesics market in early 1982 to just 7% by late 1982. According to media reports, the sudden deaths occured because the Tylenol capsules had been laced2 with cyanide.

The capsules had been opened and filled with 65 mg of cyanide.3 Inspite of the deaths, J&J was praised for its quick action and sincere efforts in recalling Tylenol and giving consumer safety as top priority. In 1986, J&J faced a similar crisis when yet another incident of product tampering was reported. A woman in New York died after taking a cyanide laced extra strength Tylenol capsule.

J&J had to once again recall all the capsules. The company promised to offer Tylenol only in the tablets or caplets4 form. In 1989, J&J faced another problem when deaths were reported due to overdoses of Tylenol. Following this, there were hundreds of deaths and severe liver damages all attributed to Tylenol's main ingredient - acetaminophen. Many analysts felt that J&J's label should have been more explicit, in warning customers. According to media reports, at least 100 suits had been filed against J&J over acetaminophen poisonings between 1990 and 1997. However, despite the bad publicity and the costly legal settlements, J&J did not seem keen on warning its customers. Analysts wondered about the company which had been a role model in prioritizing consumer safety during the 1982 crisis.

The Johnson & Johnson Tylenol Controversies - Next Page>>

1] McNeil Laboratories, the manufacturer of Tylenol, was acquired by J&J in 1956.

2] The capsules were emptied and refilled with cyanide.

3] About 10,000 times more poisonous than a human body can resist.

4] Single compartment sealed capsules.


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