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The 1982 Tylenol Terror Shattered American Consumer Innocence

Seven people lost their lives after taking poisoned Tylenol. The tragedy led to important safety reforms

Nobody has ever been charged with the Tylenol poisonings. (Maxpixel)
smithsonian.com

A tragedy set the precedent for tamper-proof packaging.

It might seem incredible today, but until 35 years ago, few over-the-counter drug packages came with seals that showed when they’d been tampered with–like the seal covering the mouth of a pill bottle. That all changed after cyanide-laced Extra-Strength Tylenol killed seven people, prompting one of the first product recalls in American history. The deaths began on this day in 1982, when Mary Kellerman, 12, died just hours after taking the drug.

Even today, nobody knows for sure who the so-called “Tylenol terrorist” was, writes Dan Fletcher for Time, although a man named James Lewis spent 13 years in prison for extortion related to the murders. Lewis had sent a letter to Johnson & Johnson, the manufacturers of Tylenol, demanding $1 million to "stop the killing,’” writes Emily Friedman for ABC News. However, nobody has ever been charged with or convicted of the murders themselves.

“Before the ‘Tylenol Terrorist’ struck, Tylenol was the nation’s leading over-the-counter drug and Johnson & Johnson’s bestselling product and some observers speculated that Tylenol would never be able to recover from the disaster,” writes History.com. But a concerted effort by Tylenol meant that the product was back on the shelves in a new, safer format just two months later, Judith Rehak wrote for The New York Times in 2002.

However, writes Fletcher, the Tylenol incident had sparked literally hundreds of copycat incidents:

The Food and Drug Administration tallied more than 270 different incidents of product tampering in the month following the Tylenol deaths. Pills tainted with everything from rat poison to hydrochloric acid sickened people around the country. Some copycats expanded to food tampering: that Halloween, parents reported finding sharp pins concealed in candy corn and candy bars. 

In short, the Tylenol murders " kicked off a lot of nastiness," writes Barbara Mikkelson for Snopes. The result of this surge in deadly tampering prompted “a revolution in product safety standards,” he writes. Manufacturers of pharmaceuticals and food "dramatically improved their packaging," adopting seals that showed when packages had been opened–a small change that resulted in a big upswing in consumer confidence.

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