March 03, 1986 12:00 PM

Since Diane Elsroth, 23, of Peekskill, N.Y. died on Feb. 8 after taking an Extra-Strength Tylenol capsule tainted with cyanide, James E. Burke has been reliving a nightmare. Chairman and chief executive officer of Johnson & Johnson (whose subsidiary, McNeil Consumer Products Company, makes Tylenol), Burke, 60, faced the same anguish in 1982, when seven people in the Chicago area died after swallowing poisoned Tylenol capsules. The Chicago murders remain unsolved and the inquiry into Elsroth’s death has yielded few solid leads. The continuing investigation took an ominous turn with the discovery of a second contaminated bottle in a Bronxville, N.Y. store close to the supermarket where Elsroth’s Tylenol had been purchased. Last week Burke announced that Johnson & Johnson would no longer produce Tylenol capsules or any of its other over-the-counter medications in capsule form—a decision that he said would cost the company an estimated $150 million in lost revenues and recall costs. (Taking Tylenol capsules off the market in 1982 cost the company an estimated $100 million.)

Through the crisis and while speaking to senior writer Michelle Green, the earnest, articulate Burke (who joined Johnson & Johnson in 1953) projected an aura of grave composure while explaining his company’s response to the tragedy.

How did you find out that cyanide-laced Tylenol had caused the death of Diane Elsroth?

David Clare, our president, came in sometime that Monday afternoon and said, “We have a serious problem again.” He was pale. He didn’t have to tell me what it was. We’ve got lots of serious problems with a company this big and this complicated, but I could tell it was a Tylenol problem because of the look on his face.

What has your life been like since then?

Difficult, needless to say. We are back doing what we did 3½ years ago—there’s a sense of déjà vu. But of course you’re so busy dealing with the incident and the inordinate complexities of the response that you don’t have a lot of time to think. I haven’t worked out the number, but I’m sure there are several thousand people within our own company working on various aspects of this problem.

Were you fearful that a poisoning incident would crop up again?

I must admit, each of the anniversaries after the original poisoning, I don’t think I slept all night because I thought if there’s somebody out there who did it and he or she or they aren’t in jail and are still alive—none of which we knew—they might do it again, just to show how smart they were. But most people said to me, “That’s ridiculous. That was an isolated incident, and it’s over.” But just as my anxieties were largely relieved and I looked at a hugely successful comeback of the business—the highest market share in its history, highest sales, highest profits, all in the face of five new competitors; it was absolutely brilliant—after having done that, here we have this incident.

Do you have your own private scenario for how the second round of poisonings might have come about?

We all play detective in this one, you can’t resist it. Everybody you meet does. That’s one of the reasons for the interest in this: It’s a grand unsolved mystery surrounding a product that is used every day by everybody, so we have something in common. It becomes a national pastime. I don’t think any of us is any better at constructing possible answers than you are. I personally believe it happened in the local area for a reason or reasons unknown. I wouldn’t know how to guess what happened. I have a feeling, though, that we may discover the perpetrator here. That may be wishful thinking—because we didn’t in Chicago. It’s just a hunch.

Do you see these tampering incidents as a form of terrorism?

I do consider this terrorism in the sense that invading the society through adulteration of a household product does strike terror. That doesn’t mean it’s a terrorist who’s doing it just to terrorize—it may be to murder, to cover up a suicide, to extort money, or just to have fun, to show how smart they are.

Early on, there were rumors that the Tylenol in question may accidentally have become tainted by the cyanide used inside the plant for quality-control testing. Has that notion been discarded?

Yes. It’s too bad that you do have to have cyanide inside the plant because it’s become part of all the news stories. First it’s a very small amount of cyanide that’s kept in the laboratory—it’s used for government-required analytical tests. Second, the quality-control lab is one of the most guarded parts of any plant. It’s run by the most careful, highly professional people. The cyanide is under strict supervision. And most important, the cyanide in the lab is different from that found in the poisoned capsules.

How will you implement the switch from capsules to caplets?

Our caplets [oval-shaped tablets with a special coating to make them easy to swallow] have been on the market since 1984. We’ll be putting more of them in distribution and in different forms. At the moment we only have them in extra-strength, and we don’t have too many sizes. We’re confident about them—we’ve never known of a case where tablets have been tampered with.

Can any product survive two bouts with fatal tampering incidents?

Yes, of course. When the poisonings in Chicago occurred, we cashed in on over 95 years of trust that we had built with the consumer. Everybody in the country believed in us because of our history, because of what Johnson & Johnson was: Anyone who’d ever used the baby powder or a Band-Aid or whatever had that attitude toward the company. And what our research shows us is that even today, after having gone through one of these scares previously, the public still feels that trust. And that’s why we’re bringing Tylenol back.

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