Marketing surveys since a New York woman died from a cyanide-tainted Tylenol capsule indicate that sales of the painkiller can bounce back from the second such poisoning scare in 3 1/2 years, the manufacturer's top official said yesterday.
Johnson & Johnson chairman James Burke said the latest Tylenol scare will cost the firm "tens of millions of dollars," but the surveys indicate a "remarkable resiliency" in public acceptance, and it is unlikely the company will remove it from the market.
One poll of Tylenol capsule users found that 71 percent intend to use the painkiller in the future, according to a company spokesman. Another poll of 382 persons found that 18 percent blamed the manufacturer for the traces of the deadly chemical found in two Tylenol bottles in suburban Westchester County, N.Y., and 87 percent said the same could happen to any similar product.
Officials cautioned that the samples in both polls were small, but said the findings were similar to ones after a 1982 tampering case in Chicago where seven persons died.
At least 17 states and the District of Columbia have banned the sale of Tylenol capsules or ordered them off store shelves since Diane Elsroth, 23, died Feb. 8 after taking two Extra-Strength Tylenol capsules laced with cyanide. A second poisoned bottle of capsules was found last week in a F.W. Woolworth store less than two blocks from the A&P supermaket in Bronxville, N.Y., where Elsroth's pills were bought.
Burke, appearing on ABC's "This Week With David Brinkley," said the Chicago case cost his company $250 million in lost sales and costs for tamper-resistant packaging, but until last week Tylenol had regained its place as the leading-selling painkiller with 34 percent of the market.
"We suffered and we'll suffer again," he said.
Burke disputed suggestions that the two cases involved a grudge against Johnson & Johnson. "If someone really had a grudge they would have taken much broader action and they would have done it sooner and they would have done it in a very different way," he said.
One local official interviewed with Burke called for a ban on all drugs in capsule form to prevent similar incidents.
"It's happened twice. We don't learn from history only because people are dumb," said Westchester County Executive Andrew O'Rourke.
O'Rourke and Burke disagreed with a suggestion by Carl A. Vergari, the county district attorney investigating the case, that the tampering took place "at the plant."
The capsules that killed Elsroth were manufactured and packaged in Los Piedras, Puerto Rico; those found at the nearby Woolworth store were manufactured and packaged in Fort Washington, Pa. Both were distributed from a warehouse in Montgomeryville, Pa., owned by McNeil Consumer Products Co., a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson.
O'Rourke said he regarded the case as "a local incident" of "reverse shoplifting where someone came in and actually put it on the shelf."
A tamperer at the distribution center would have had to penetrate "an awful lot of material" in which the capsules were packed, said Burke. Then, one bottle would have gone through the "A&P distribution center which goes to 38 states" while the other went to "F.W. Woolworth distribution centers in 26 states," he said.
He said it seemed too great a coincidence that the two bottles would "end up at two stores a block and a half apart."
The Food and Drug Administration has also said all tests and facts to date seemed to indicate the tampering did not take place in the factory. FDA Commissioner Frank E. Young said yesterday, "It really sounds like it's much more of a professional-type job."
But Bruce Bendish, a county assistant district attorney, said prosecutors will make a visit "sometime this week" to the Pennsylvania manufacturing and distribution facilities "to make sure we're familiar with procedures so it can help should further questions arise."
"For anybody to focus in on any one theory now would be premature," Bendish said.