As the Tylenol cyanide case unfolds, full praise should be given to the extra-strength effort being made to track down the Mad Tamperer. Seven Tylenol users are dead. The best detectives, backed by the highest law enforcement authorities in Illinois and by the Food and Drug Administration, have been called in. The manufacturers of the over-the-counter drug, quickly recalled, have offered a $100,000 reward for information about the poisonings.
The energy expended on the case is appropriate. But the aggressiveness in flushing out what is presumably a deranged killer contrasts markedly to the sluggishness of the legal system when people are killed or injured as a result of corporate decisions.
The hue and cry when the hunt is for a lone madman who stalks the drugstore aisle with cyanide often becomes muted when the suspects are in the board room.
The public's victimization has a long history. In a three-year period in the late 1960s, a Parke, Davis antibiotic called Chloromycetin was associated by the California State Health Department with an estimated 240 to 405 needless deaths. The names of other drugs that killed or harmed people are now all but forgotten, though it is less than 25 years since physicians prescribed them: Dornwal, Elipten, Flexin, to name a few.
Oraflex, a now-withdrawn arthritis medicine from Eli Lilly, has been associated with scores of reported deaths in the United States and Great Britain. Public Citizen Health Research Group, which did much investigative work regarding Oraflex, has asked the agency to recommend criminal procecutions against Eli Lilly for allegedly withholding evidence from the FDA about possible adverse reactions. FDA is considering what course to take. Lilly has said it has complied fully with the law.
This resembles an investigation involving Selacryn, a high-blood-pressure drug that was marketed and later withdrawn by SmithKline Beckman Corp. The FDA received reports of some 60 deaths amd more than 500 cases of liver damage involving Selacryn. The company has paid out money to settle several Selacryn claims.
A Justice Department investigation of the company's alleged failure to report promptly adverse reactions is pending. SmithKline has said it has acted responsibly.
To date, no one has offered a $100,000 reward for information on how corporate decisions were reached on the marketing and advertising of these drugs. Nor have the country's best detectives been turned loose to hunt for possible corporate criminality.
Should the maniac who laced Tylenol with cyanide come to trial, he will find both his crime and his personality under intense focus. Public pressure will be intense on prosecutors to get a conviction and stiff sentence. But a double standard exists. Should it come to punishment, a corporate executive whose offense may cause 10 times more public suffering than the crimes of a hoodlum or gangster could still expect soft justice rather than hard justice.
In the enduring classic, "Sin and Society," published in 1907, Edward A. Ross, wrote that public opinion is "impotent so long as it allows itself to be kept guessing . . . whether the accountability is with the foreman, or the local manager, or the general manager, or the president, or the directors. How easily the general wrath is lost in this maze. . . . Instead of playing hide-and-seek in the intricacies of the coporate structure, public opinion should strike right for the top."