Johnson & Johnson CEO steered company through '80s Tylenol scare

| Monday, Oct. 1, 2012, 8:26 p.m.

TRENTON, N.J. — Former Johnson & Johnson CEO James E. Burke, who steered the health care giant through the Tylenol poisonings in the 1980s that resulted in the first tamper-resistant product packaging, has died.

The company said Burke passed away Friday at 87 after a long, unspecified illness. He was 87.

Burke, who ran the New Brunswick, N.J., company for 13 of his 37 years there, had a big impact in his second career, as chairman of the Partnership for a Drug-Free America for 16 years.

He persuaded TV stations, newspapers and other media outlets to run free ads, produced for free by advertising agencies, warning of the dangers of illicit drugs. In one of the most memorable ads, an announcer intoned, “This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs,” as an egg was cracked and then sizzled away in a hot frying pan.

Burke helped make drug abuse a high-profile national concern when the issue was just starting to gain traction after first lady Nancy Reagan's “Just Say No” campaign. At the peak, about $1 million a day worth of free ads against drug abuse were running, said Steve Dnistrian, who worked with Burke for 14 years at the partnership.

In a rare honor for a CEO, Burke was awarded the prestigious Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country's highest civilian award, in 2000 by President Bill Clinton, for his corporate and civic leadership.

Burke was chief executive and chairman from 1976 through 1989.

During that time, Johnson & Johnson's annual sales more than tripled to $9 billion, net income increased nearly fivefold, and the company expanded its operations from 37 to 54 countries, turning it into a true global health care conglomerate.

The most memorable part of his tenure, though, occurred when someone laced capsules of pain reliever Tylenol with cyanide in 1982. Seven people in Chicago and its suburbs died over three days beginning Sept. 29, 1982. The perpetrator still has not been found.

Dnistrian, now vice president for communications at Johnson & Johnson, recalled “pandemonium,” with police in Chicago riding around with bullhorns warning people not to take Tylenol.

“Burke in a pretty dramatic press conference said the company had decided to seize all Tylenol capsules,” Dnistrian said. “He pulled 32 million bottles of Tylenol off the shelves (nationwide), resulting in a cost to the company in excess of $100 million.

“There was just no other way to guarantee public safety,” he recalled Burke as saying.

The incident led to the introduction of packaging with plastic or foil seals to prevent people from tampering with medical products and even food, as well as the replacement of Tylenol capsules, which could easily be pulled apart and altered, with the caplets common today.

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