The ‘Tylenol Murders’ & The Birth of Tamper-Resistant Packaging

With necessity often acknowledged as the mother of invention, a series of murders in Chicago provided a very urgent need to reinvent pharmaceutical packaging design, reassure a traumatised public – and arguably rescue public faith in an entire industry.

How an unsolved multiple homicide forced a revolution in the packaging industry

Within a few days during the autumn of 1982, a spate of sudden and mysterious deaths struck down residents of Chicago’s metropolitan suburbs. Ranging in age and distributed across the city, it was discovered that all seven of the victims had died after ingesting capsules of a popular analgesic known as Extra-Strength Tylenol. Tests soon revealed that capsules within these bottles had been laced with a deadly dose of potassium cyanide.  

Detectives determined that the bottles originated from different production facilities and had been delivered to various stores, thereby discounting the idea of accidental contamination at the point of manufacture. As a result, it was theorised that the perpetrator had purchased the bottles from multiple retail locations, inserted their deadly substitute capsules, and then discreetly returned the bottles to the shelves for them to be fatally consumed by an unwitting stranger.   

In addition to the seven dead in Chicago, copycat crimes also later claimed lives in cities from New York to Texas. The great psychological shock of this style of murder lay both in its indiscriminate cruelty and its banal simplicity – delivering death to strangers via a lethal poison introduced so easily into the supply chains of a popular household product.

A crisis of trust (and sales)

The media storm and the alarm experienced by the public sent a reciprocal shockwave into the boardrooms and balance sheets of Big Pharma.

Johnson & Johnson (owner of Tylenol’s manufacturer) watched their product’s market share sink from 35% to 8%, responding with a nationwide recall of 31 million bottles retailing at a value of US$265m. Marketing, distribution and sales were frozen. Media frantically warned the public not to consume the product; the city government even deployed trucks with loudspeakers to roam the suburbs alerting citizens to the danger.  

An industry forced to innovate

Johnson & Johnson had no choice but to urgently seek ways in which they could restore public faith in the safety of their products. The pharmaceutical superpower was quick to invest in a multitude of design innovations in the pursuit of tamper-proof packaging, introducing elements such as induction seals, bubble-top lids and roll-on metal closures, among many others.

Following widespread publicity to promote these new safety features, and with sharply reduced price promotions as an incentive, Johnson & Johnson’s market share regained its dominance within a year. In 1983, the US government legislated to make product tampering a federal offence.

Although today’s painkillers arrive reassuringly sealed, the case of the ‘Tylenol Murders’ remains disturbingly open. Over the years, various suspects have been investigated and indicted on related charges, including for copycat crimes, but no one has ever been prosecuted for the deeds of Chicago’s cowardly killer.

Find the right partner in crime

Today, tamper-proof and tamper-evident packaging is more readily available than ever before. These packaging solutions contain a number of features; from tear away strips that can not be replaced, visual void labels, locking tabs that break when tampered and snap seal stickers.

While Chicago’s criminal mystery offers a macabre and extreme example, this historical case and the swift industrial innovations it provoked provide a cautionary tale on the importance on having the right packaging for your product.

Murder is never good for business (unless you happen to be an undertaker), but neither is choosing packaging that is unsuitable for the desired quality, safety or brand appeal of your product. At Rawson Print Co. we provide expert advice, extensive knowledge and offer a wide catalogue of services – allowing you to select the tamper-proof packaging solution that is truly right for your business.