Posted on October 1, 2012 at 11:47 AM
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 died late Friday at the age of 87, after a long, unspecified illness.
Burke, who had a 37-year career at the New Brunswick, N.J., company, also had a big impact in his second career, as the long-time chairman of the Partnership for a Drug-Free America.
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.
In a rare honor for a CEO, Burke was awarded the prestigious Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2000 by President Bill Clinton, for both his corporate and civic leadership.
The Vermont native started at J&J in 1953 as a product director and became president in 1973. He served as CEO and chairman from 1976 through 1989.
Over 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, came 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.
Steve Dnistrian, 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 told The Associated Press. “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.
After retiring from Johnson & Johnson, Burke became chairman of the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, a nonprofit group that’s now called The Partnership at Drugfree.org. He served there until 2005 but remain involved with the group after that.
Burke and his wife, Didi, who survives him, were longtime residents of Princeton, N.J.
A private family funeral is planned in the Princeton area and public memorials likely will be held in New Brunswick and New York, according to Dnistrian.