Ethics Paper: Tylenol Crisis

  1. Issue:

Five to 7 micrograms of cyanide is all that it takes to kill a human being. In 1982, Extra-Strength Tylenol capsules containing ten-thousand times that amount were consumed by 7 people in the Chicago area. When the police determined the connection between the deaths, McNeil Consumer Products, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson, faced a dilemma that could potentially destroy their reputation. While there were concerns for public safety, Johnson & Johnson still needed to create income.

  1. Relevant facts include:
  • The range of the 7 victims’ ages were 12 years-old to 35 years-old.
  • The Extra-Strength Tylenol capsules were determined to have been tampered with by an individual once the bottles had reached the shelves in Chicago.
  • The FBI, Chicago police, the Food and Drug Administration, and Johnson & Johnson consulted with each other to protect the public from more harm.
  • After the Tylenol cyanide murders were announced, there were copycats who tampered with other products. The Food and Drug Administration counted two-hundred-and-seventy additional cases of drug contaminations as reported by the public. The FDA was able to confirm about thirty-six cases.
  • There was a nation-wide panic concerning the epidemic and many people were hospitalized on suspicions of cyanide poisoning.
  • One of the Chicago hospitals received seven-hundred phone calls regarding Tylenol in a day.
  • A recall of all thirty-one-million Tylenol bottles would cost over one-million dollars at the expense of Johnson & Johnson.
  • There was national media coverage on the murders and Tylenol’s implication.
  1. Claimants:
  • Johnson & Johnson, CEO James E. Burke: The world expects Johnson & Johnson to provide safe medications. Johnson & Johnson also needs to turn a profit with their products to maintain their business. They have duties to fidelity, reparation, justice, beneficence, and non-injury.
  • Family of the victims: The families experienced grief and loss at the hand of the cyanide-killer. They wanted justice and a change in procedure from Johnson & Johnson regarding manufacturing. They have a duty to show gratitude toward Johnson & Johnson for taking action.
  • Consumers: Consumers have the right to know what they are consuming. If they are told the product is safe, then they should receive a safe and sealed product. Their duty is to show gratitude to Johnson & Johnson, as well.
  1. The options, as I see them, are: a. Johnson & Johnson could have claimed that because the crime was committed by a third-party, they had no fault in the situation. b. Johnson & Johnson could publicly apologize for their part in the killings and recall all of its products. They could update the packaging and have a brand image re-launch. They could distribute coupons and free vouchers as part of their campaign. c. Johnson & Johnson could have held a press conference to explain that a third-party killer was to blame. They could have educated the public on the cyanide-laced capsules and let the public sort it out. d. Johnson & Johnson could have refused to cooperate with law enforcement and the media. Law enforcement would have to deal with the press conferences to alert the public.

Favored options:

  • Johnson & Johnson would most likely peg a as the easiest option. However, the company would most likely favor option b because in the long run, they would gain the public’s trust back. Johnson & Johnson would probably view options c and d as incomplete.
  • The victims’ families would definitely prefer option b to any others. They would most likely be offended by options a, c, and d.
  • The consumers would favor and disfavor the same options as the families of the victims.

Best- and worst-case scenarios:

  • The crime was committed by a third-party, Johnson & Johnson had no fault: Best case- the public believes that Johnson & Johnson was a victim, too. People throw out all their current medications and become cautious. The consumers learn to only buy medications that are tamper-proof. Worst case- the public becomes so outraged at Johnson & Johnson that they boycott all products made by that company. Johnson & Johnson go bankrupt.
  • Public apology, product recall, new packaging, re-launch, and coupons: Best case- the public forgives and considers Johnson & Johnson an honest company. The sales increase and Johnson & Johnson regain control of the market. Worst case- Johnson & Johnson invest millions of dollars in to the public relations campaign but people are too scared of the medications to buy them. The company goes bankrupt. Copycats continue to tamper with medications of all brands and more people die.
  • Press conference to educate the public: Best case- consumers believe that Johnson & Johnson was a victim, too. People become cautious of their medications and only a few more people die sporadically throughout the years. Worst case- consumers villianize Johnson & Johnson and many boycott buying their products. People continue taking the medications from the shelves and more people die. Johnson & Johnson goes bankrupt and there are copycats who target all types of medication brands.
  • Johnson & Johnson refuses to cooperate with law enforcement and the media: Best case- law enforcement make Johnson & Johnson look like victims. The media focuses on the killer and on the new safety features of Tylenol bottles. No one blames Johnson & Johnson. Worst case- the media releases that Johnson & Johnson are refusing to cooperate. People sense a scandal and boycott Johnson & Johnson products. The company goes bankrupt.


The actions where Johnson & Johnson make public apologies and attempts at reconciliation seem to have the least harm in the long-run. Initially, Johnson & Johnson would surely suffer a large loss. In the long-run, the company would reclaim the empire because the public would trust that Johnson & Johnson had the consumers’ best interest in mind.

Ideals, meaning “a notion of excellence, a goal that is thought to bring about greater harmony to ourselves and others,” as said by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero, include: freedom from harm (for consumers); financial stability (for Johnson & Johnson); respect for others.

Conflicting ideals:

  • The consumers most likely would favor freedom from harm and mutual respect. They probably wouldn’t care if Johnson & Johnson faced financial devastation.
  • Johnson & Johnson would likely have financial trouble if they focused on public safety and respect.


There are laws in place that focus on the safety of the public. There is also a moral imperative that suggests we do as little harm to others as possible. At the same time, the United States is a country founded on capitalism. In the business world, the name of the game is Money. The rules of the game include:

  1. Have money
  2. Make more money
  3. Stay rich

Without money, you lose.

  1. Ethical guidelines:


  • Many consider the governing rule to be the “Harm Principle” as defined by John Stewart Mill. The bottom line: the actions of individuals should be limited to not harming others. If Johnson & Johnson doesn’t recall their Tylenol products, they are not violating the principle because they are not harming others. However, the killer is violating the principle by killing people with cyanide.
  • If Johnson & Johnson focused on turning a profit instead of public safety, their actions could lead to financial ruin should the public dislike the plan. Machiavelli taught that we should look out for ourselves first; however, he would be partial to goals that had long-term vision.
  • Johnson & Johnson could create a tamper-proof bottle to ensure public safety which would lead to an increase of sales.


  • Johnson & Johnson is in business to sell products and to earn a profit. They are fulfilling their beneficence duty by selling safe products. At the end of the day, they would be doing what they were meant to do.
  1. Decision:

Johnson & Johnson made the correct call by putting the safety of consumers first. They immediately agreed to work with law enforcement, including the Food and Drug Administration. They apologized to the public and recalled all thirty-one-million Tylenol bottles, resulting in a loss of over one-million dollars. They encouraged police to parade up and down the streets of West-Chicago with megaphones to urge people to stop taking Tylenol. Johnson & Johnson halted the production of medications and pulled-down all advertisements. The company created tamper-proof bottles to guarantee consumer safety and consequentially gained loyal consumers as a result.

  1. Defense:

I can only imagine how the families of the victims would feel. They must be so deeply affected by the tragedy that they would most likely refuse to use Tylenol ever again. If my loved one was taken from me in such a disastrous way, I would become ever vigilant and cautious of my use of medications. Such a mindset would be absolutely valid.

Johnson & Johnson, the makers of Tylenol, have invented tamper-proof bottles to help protect families.

While the pain of the misfortune must be overwhelming, the families now have advanced understanding of the importance of tamper-proof bottles. As likened to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, the members of the families can share their knowledge with the public to ensure that everyone will know. Their experiences, as difficult as they have been, prove that safety of our families is the most important thing.


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