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The Chicago Tylenol Murders of 1982

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 19, 2018

I don’t know how many people under the age of 35 know about the Chicago Tylenol murders, but for a few weeks in 1982, it was a national news sensation. Seven people in the Chicago area died after ingesting Tylenol capsules laced with potassium cyanide. Retro Report took a look back at this episode, with a focus on how Johnson & Johnson and other drug companies modified their packaging to prevent in-store tampering.

The company considered renaming Tylenol, a word that incorporates some of the letters from 4- (aceTYLamino) phENOL, a chemical name for acetaminophen, the drug’s active ingredient. But a name change was rejected.

Instead, a mere six weeks after the crisis flared, the company offered a different solution, a new bottle with the sorts of safety elements now familiar (if at times exasperating) to every shopper: cotton wad, foil seal, childproof cap, plastic strip. Capsules began to be replaced with caplets the following year.

Johnson & Johnson was viewed as an exemplar of corporate responsibility, and enjoyed what some people described as the greatest comeback since Lazarus. Nowadays, all sorts of products come in containers deemed tamper-proof, or at least tamper-evident, meaning that consumers can readily tell if a seal has been broken or something else is amiss.

Incredibly, the case is still unsolved…no one knows who did it or why. Thinking about the amount of in-store surveillance that we have, it seems unlikely that such a crime would go unsolved for long today.