In the 1980s, the popular painkiller Tylenol was involved in a high-profile tampering scandal, which caused mass hysteria – and tragically, several deaths.

The scandal prompted widespread fear, and sales slowed for years. The brand did eventually recover, something that is widely attributed to manufacturer Johnson & Johnson’s response.

Further tampering scandals followed in the forthcoming years, with this case leaving a lasting legacy on the medical world. Here, we look at all the information around the Tylenol tampering scandal.

The Beginning of the Tylenol Tampering Scandal

Back in 1982, Tylenol, which was owned by Johnson & Johnson, was one of the most popular painkillers in the United States. However, as mentioned, the medicine fell victim to a drug tampering scandal. The scandal affected the city of Chicago, United States, and its environs.

The first death was that of 12-year old Mary Kellerman on September 29, who died after taking an Extra-Strength variant of Tylenol. The death left Doctors puzzled, with further strange events to come later that day.

A few hours later, three members of the same extended family all died within hours of one another. These were Adam Janus, Stanley Janus and their sister-in-law, Theresa. All three were under the age of 30, and had used Tylenol from the same bottle.

Three further deaths followed in the subsequent days, with Mary McFarland, Paula Prince and Mary Reiner all passing away. The seven deaths were finally linked when health professionals realised that each had taken what they believed to be Tylenol.

The Discovery of Tampering

Tests were carried out, which led to the discovery that what had appeared to be Tylenol was actually the deadly chemical potassium cyanide. This was soon announced to the public, leading to mass hysteria to ensue.

There was significant concern among the public, and bottles of Tylenol were quickly discarded of, with the Police launching an investigation immediately.

The Police were able to discount manufacturers, as the bottles arrived from different factories in different parts of the nation. But the problem was exclusive to Chicago, meaning that the tampering was being done within the area.

This led the Police to theorise that a person or people had purchased Tylenol bottles, opened the capsules and replaced the contents with Cyanide.

The theory suggested that the criminal then took the bottles back to the store and discreetly returned them to the shelves.

Johnson & Johnson’s Response to the Tylenol Tampering Scandal

The manufacturer of Tylenol – Johnson & Johnson, were quick to address the problem. Within a week of the first death, the brand ordered a nationwide recall of Tylenol products, which cost the company around $150,000,000 in lost sales.

They also stopped all advertising of Tylenol, and ceased production temporarily. Media appeals were also made to urge the American public not to consume any product linked to Tylenol or its active ingredients.

Investigations into the Tylenol Tampering Scandal

Investigations went on for several years, though the crime was never officially solved. Extensive efforts were made, as the Police were keen to bring the serial killer to justice.

One man – James William Lewis – was imprisoned for 20 years after being convicted of extortion – having tried to demand Johnson & Johnson to pay $1million to stop the tampering.

But evidence suggests it is unlikely that it ever actually was Lewis. Other suspects were considered, but no one was ever charged with the crime. The investigations ultimately proved fruitless, with the crime left unsolved.

The Recovery of Tylenol

Ultimately, Tylenol recovered from the tampering scandal. Sales were very slow at first, but they soon rebounded to the extent where within a few years, Tylenol once again became one of the most popular medications across the United States.

Johnson & Johnson initially focused purely on tablet forms of Tylenol, but eventally released capsules once more, albeit with a new triple-sealed system to increase safety, which assuaded many concerns of the public.

Johnson & Johnson won plaudits for their reaction to this crisis, with many historians in recent years attributing Tylenol’s recovery to Johnson & Johnson’s swift action. When faced with a disastrous situation, Johnson & Johnson dealt with the problems facing them effectively.

Other medicines fell victim to tampering scandal

Further Tampering Scandals

Unfortunately, the Tylenol tampering scandal caused a “copycat-effect”, which led to other cases of tampering taking place across numerous states in the United States.

A woman in New York passed away in 1986 following cyanide poisoning, which followed her taking a tylenol capsule. This again, unfortunately was never solved, despite appearing to be a targeted murder.

Multiple medicines were affected, with the Encaprin tampering scandal proving to be the most high-profile case. Excedrin was another medication that was affected by a tampering scandal, though this case did result in a conviction.

But while Tylenol quickly bounced back from the scandal, Proctor & Gamble’s Encaprin was unable to do so – eventually leading to it being permanently pulled from the market.

Other medicines were also affected, though the crimes were rarely solved. Fortunately, safety improvements in recent years have led to less tampering cases.

The Takeaway

This was a tragic period for many, with several lives lost as a result of the tampering. Ultimately, the pharmaceutical industry was able to learn, and changes were made to improve the safety of medicine.

It initially led to many medicines being offered purely in tablet form rather than capsules. Though capsules were eventually reintroduced, albeit with new, tamper-resistant packaging. This development has since expanded to many other types of goods.

Unfortunately, this tampering scandal caused seven people to lose their lives, with their descendants left to mourn their passing. Even more unfortunately, no one was ever brought to justice for this heinous crime.