Capping off a new twist to an old tale

You have to hand it to Johnson & Johnson (J&J). They’ve got a great PR team.

The company sells an OTC painkiller that lands between 55,000 and 80,000 men and women each year in the emergency room because of liver damage. Plus, it kills 500 people outright each year because of liver failure. And we’ve known about this product’s safety issues for at least 25 to 30 years.

Yet they excel at perpetuating an illusion of safety and trustworthiness. The latest illusion involves a new “safety” cap that’s more about smoke and mirrors than saving lives.

Of course, I’m talking about Tylenol (acetaminophen) and its new, heralded “safety” cap. I’ll tell you more about that pseudo-safety cap in a moment.

But first, let’s take a look at J&J’s history on safety. As you’ll recall, nationwide hysteria broke out in the early 1980s after seven people died from taking Tylenol laced with cyanide.

J&J appeared to face the scandal head-on. They pulled Tylenol from the shelves. And they launched an immediate investigation.

Of course, investigators never found the perpetrator. And a new book published by a former J&J employee argues that the poisoned Tylenol wasn’t introduced in retail stores, as the media reported at the time. Instead, he believes it was introduced in a distributor’s warehouse. And he claims that J&J knew about it. But kept mum. And even suppressed the evidence.

In the aftermath of the cyanide incident, J&J introduced a new “tamper-proof” safety cap. And J&J became a model for “crisis management” and “corporate responsibility.” In fact, in an article at the time, The Washington Post said, “Johnson & Johnson has effectively demonstrated how a major business ought to handle a disaster.”

These maneuvers left the consumer with a sense of security. (Ultimately, a false sense of security.) And before long, Tylenol’s sales completely rebounded. And they even reached new, all-time highs.

Today, you can find acetaminophen in more than 600 common, over-the-counter products. And last year, J&J made more than $1.75 billion on these products.

But the company still has a disaster on its hands. And this one is deadlier than cyanide. This time, the disaster is the drug itself.

As I mentioned earlier, acetaminophen sends between 55,000 and 80,000 men and women to the ER each year with liver damage. And some of the victims and their families are finally fed up.

J&J now faces more than 85 personal injury lawsuits in federal court for liver injuries and deaths. And even the know-nothings at the FDA finally seem concerned with Tylenol’s safety record.

What’s J&J’s solution to this latest PR crisis?

A new “safety” cap, of course!

Last month, Johnson & Johnson announced that a new warning would appear on the caps of all bottles sold in the U.S. that contain Tylenol. The warning will say, “CONTAINS ACETAMINOPHEN” and “ALWAYS READ THE LABEL.”

Of course, this kind of PR stunt only serves to improve the appearance of the company’s focus on safety. And it does nothing to raise actual awareness about acetaminophen’s actual risks. If J&J really wanted to warn people about Tylenol’s risks, the label would read, “MAY CAUSE FATAL LIVER DAMAGE.”

But J&J just wants to look busy doing nothing. And it’s working like a charm.

I caught CBS This Morning’s report on Tylenol’s new safety cap. The piece praised J&J for taking this new precaution aimed at stemming overdoses. And Dr. Holly Phillips, CBS’s credulous “medical expert,” still said that liver damage from acetaminophen is “very rare.”

Really, Dr. Phillips?

Acetaminophen is THE leading cause of liver damage in this country! But you see, J&J has done such a good PR job over the years, even the “experts” don’t seem to know or acknowledge its real dangers. So J&J looks like the hero…taking dramatic steps to warn consumers about a “rare” problem.

But will it work? Will consumers read the fine print?

And more importantly, will this PR maneuver actually save lives?

I doubt it.

In fact, it may do the opposite.

Some experts believe these “safety-cap” maneuvers don’t protect the consumer at all. They only make Tylenol appear safe. And this may encourage people to continue taking it. Or to take too much of it.

In fact, even hospitals have been brainwashed into believing that acetaminophen is a safe pain reliever. At many hospitals and medical centers, you can’t even get a low dose of Tylenol. They only carry “Extra-Strength.” Plus, a recent study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that excessively high doses of acetaminophen are routinely administered to hospital patients.

Some accounts say that experts first identified Tylenol as a major public health hazard in the 1990s. That’s when J&J added the first safety warning to the Tylenol label–warning consumers about taking it with alcohol.

J&J added this warning after Antonio Benedi, a former aide to President George H.W. Bush, fell into a coma after taking Tylenol and drinking wine with dinner. Benedi underwent emergency liver transplant as a result. And he brought a lawsuit against the company. In the end, the jury awarded him $8.8 million.

Then, in 2004, J&J added another warning to Tylenol labels about the risk of “severe liver damage.”

But the problems with Tylenol date back much farther, in my experience.

In fact, in nationwide forensic medical practice during the mid-1980s, we already saw many fatalities caused by sudden liver failure in men and women who took Tylenol. And even before that, during my medical residency at Pennsylvania Hospital, we saw fatalities linked to Tylenol.

In other words, we have known about these problems for 35 years. So why has it taken so long to reveal the truth to the public? And will this new cap really do anything to stem the harm caused by Tylenol? Or does it just help perpetuate the illusion of safety…just as the old tamper-proof safety cap did back in 1982?

My advice?

Don’t be fooled by the new “safety” label. Don’t take Tylenol. For anything. Ever.

For more on natural, safe and effective alternatives to Tylenol for pain relief, see my new report called The Insider’s Ultimate Guide to Pill-Free Pain.

Your liver will thank you.


1. “Supratherapeutic Dosing of Acetaminophen Among Hospitalized Patients,” Archives of Internal Medicine 2012; epub ahead of print.