US & Global Economic Impact Analysis and Forecasts

Freedonia analysts and economists are sharing their insights on how major events are impacting different parts of the US and global economies.

40th Anniversary of the Tylenol Murders: A Packaging Perspective

It is sometimes quite useful to look backward, even in this blog about looking forward.

This fall is the 40th anniversary of the Tylenol murders, when someone took Tylenol off the shelf, laced the capsules with cyanide, and returned them to the shelves in the Chicago area. Ultimately, 7 died, but the whole national was put on edge. Looking at it from a business perspective, not only is the tragedy an example of how fortunes can change quickly and suddenly for a market leader, it also shows how companies and whole industries can adapt quickly to change how they operate, sometimes permanently.

In this case, two industries – over-the-counter medications and packaging – changed quickly and forever.

OTC pharmaceutical companies developed a new product form (the solid “caplet”) that was designed to be harder to tamper with than the old capsule designs but just as easy to swallow compared to the leading alternative then – uncoated tablets.

The packaging industry quickly developed and added glued boxes, shrink wrap neckbands, and peel-back foil as an inner seal among other tamper evident measures. The FDA announced guidelines on November 5, 1982, and suppliers of capsule and liquid drugs were given three months to comply with new packaging, a nearly unheard of time frame for such a major repackaging effort. Although some packaging was a preliminary option meant to be functionally sufficient until the companies worked out a version that was optimal in terms of cost and appearance, all met the deadline. In fact, the first tamper-evident Tylenol packages were on the shelf by the fifth week after the deaths. All other types of drug products – presumably those less susceptible to poisonous tampering – and all imported drugs were given longer time lines, with all needing to meet tamper evident packaging guidelines by February 1984.

This is an example of rapid change that was permanent. We saw a lot of rapid shifts in the COVID-era and wonder how many are sticky trends. Changes that are most likely to become permanent include those where companies had to make significant investment in the change, where the need for the change remains high, and where there are other reasons to continue the change (e.g., consumer convenience).

Freedonia analyst will continue to watch for historical parallels, market disruptions, and the potential stickiness of industry and consumer change.

For more information and discussion of opportunities, see The Freedonia Group’s extensive collection of off-the-shelf research, especially coverage in the packaging industry.Freedonia Custom Research is also available for questions requiring tailored market intelligence.

  Industry Studies      Packaging