SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Thirty years ago today, a string of poisonings shocked the nation. Cyanide hidden in Tylenol killed seven people in the Chicago suburbs. Pharmacies pulled Tylenol off the shelf. No one was ever charged with the crime. Those crimes radically transformed the way over-the-counter drugs are packaged though, and Tylenol's public relations response is often cited as some kind of model for corporate crisis management. From WBEZ in Chicago, Tricia Bobeda reports.
TRICIA BOBEDA, BYLINE: I have a new package of Extra Strength Tylenol here.
(SOUNDBITE OF PACKAGE OPENING)
BOBEDA: Now I have to pick at the edges of this seal, which has: Sealed for your protection; written in all caps, about a dozen times.
(SOUNDBITE OF CLICKING)
BOBEDA: Clockwise. OK. Now, I have to pick at the edges of this seal, which has sealed for your protection - written in all caps - about a dozen times. And is there cotton in this bottle?
(SOUNDBITE OF BOTTLE OPENING)
BOBEDA: This is a lot of steps. But 30 years ago, what stood between a headache sufferer and their medicine?
RICHARD KEYWORTH: Nothing. You'd pop the cap off and there was the pills. And back then they were capsules. And you can take the capsules apart and all the little balls of medication would roll out.
BOBEDA: That's Richard Keyworth. He was a firefighter in the Chicago suburbs and one of the first investigators in the Tylenol murders case. This weekend marks 30 years since poisoned Tylenol killed seven people in Chicago's suburbs. Keyworth says investigators quickly realized the poison was hidden in bottles of Tylenol. But no one knew how it got there, or how many people were at risk.
KEYWORTH: There was a feeling of helplessness. And Tylenol was the medication for everything. If you can't trust that, what can you trust?
BOBEDA: Investigators said the poison was likely slipped into bottles after they were already on store shelves. Johnson and Johnson then recalled about one hundred million dollars worth of Tylenol. The FBI has reopened the cold case and investigators are using new technology to search for DNA evidence. Mark Mandell was finishing up pharmacy school in Chicago when the Tylenol murder story broke in 1982. He says for a while, people were scared to take just about any medication.
MARK MANDELL: You really had to try to reassure people, but how confident were you as an individual? Because no one knew. It was unknown, you know, who the attacker was, what the motive was, and it was out there.
BOBEDA: The deaths spurred new regulations on over-the-counter drug packaging. The FDA and Congress quickly passed a federal anti-tampering law. Mandell says there shouldn't be any confusion now about how to handle a product with a broken seal.
MANDELL: Sort of in your face. You know, if anything appears wrong, don't use it.
BOBEDA: Over time, Tylenol bounced back to its status as a household name. O.C. Ferrell is a marketing ethics professor at the University of New Mexico. He says the way Johnson and Johnson handled the Tylenol case is still considered textbook crisis management.
O.C. FERRELL: If you're a really good company like they were in making this recall, you've got to say, if we don't protect the brand name and our integrity of our reputation, then nothing will matter in the long run.
BOBEDA: Now, for many Tylenol users, perhaps the biggest thing they worry about is getting the bottle open. For NPR News, I'm Tricia Bobeda in Chicago.
SIMON: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.