NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. (CBSNewYork/AP) — Lawrence Foster, a former Johnson & Johnson executive who helped steer the health care giant through the Tylenol poisonings in the early 1980s, has died at the age of 88.
Family members said Mr. Foster died Thursday at his Westfield home after a brief illness. His death was announced Sunday.
A former journalist and editor with the Newark Evening News, Mr. Foster was New Brunswick, N.J.-based Johnson & Johnson’s vice president of public relations when the Tylenol poisonings occurred.
Mr. Foster helped devise the strategy the company used to keep the public informed. That strategy involved opening the doors of Johnson & Johnson to the news media, and kept James Burke, then the chief executive officer of Johnson & Johnson, in front of the news cameras at all times, according to a Star-Ledger report.
Seven people in Chicago and the surrounding suburbs died in the fall of 1982. All of them had taken Tylenol that had come from one batch – Extra-Strength Tylenol capsules, 50-capsule size, Lot No. MC2880, expiration date April 1987, WBBM-TV, CBS 2 Chicago reported at the time.
The poisonings caused a panic in the Chicago area and around the country. Then-Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne banned all Tylenol in the city, and poison control centers were deluged with calls from people who were afraid they had taken tainted Tylenol, former WBBM-TV Health and Science Editor Roger Field reported in October 1982.
“We were just swamped with calls,” Jack Lipscomb, the director of Chicago’s Rush-Presbyterian St. Luke’s Poison Control Center, said in the Oct. 1, 1982, report. “The majority the time, all three of our lines were busy at once, for almost the entire day. We did have some problems with people with other poisonings trying to get through and were not able to.”
Following the poisonings, Johnson & Johnson spent more than $100 million as it recalled 32 million bottles of Tylenol capsules, the Star-Ledger reported. When the medicine was returned to shelves, it was outfitted with tamper-resistant packaging, the paper reported.
In his 1999 self-published autobiography, “Robert Wood Johnson – The Gentleman Rebel” – Mr. Foster wrote that Johnson & Johnson was “completely open and forthright with the news media” from the very first call about the poisonings, and quickly began the voluntary recall that ultimately affected the whole world, the newspaper reported.
He wrote that Johnson & Johnson’s credibility were at stake at the time, “as was the compelling need to protect the public,” the newspaper reported.
Mr. Foster spent 33 years with Johnson & Johnson before retiring in 1990. He later helped found the Arthur Page Center for Integrity in Public Communication at Penn State University, the newspaper reported.
Mr. Foster is survived by his wife of 64 years, Ellen, along with a brother, five children, 10 grandchildren, and a great-grandchild, the newspaper reported.
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