Johnson & Johnson Tells the Truth, Which Isn’t Enough

One can tell the exact truth and still mislead, and in fact tell the exact truth in order to mislead. Tylenol, used in ways people may unknowingly use it, can damage the liver and even kill people. According to Pro Publica, its marketing campaign the unit of Johnson & Johnson that makes Tylenol, McNeil Consumer Healthcare,

burnish[ed] Tylenol’s image while usually avoiding claims of absolute safety or zero side effects. One slogan: “The brand of pain reliever that doctors recommend more than any other.” Another: “Trust TYLENOL. Hospitals do.”

“We never use the word ‘safe’ in our advertising,” said Anthony Temple, McNeil’s longtime medical director, in a legal case in 1993. “We will say ‘a superior safety profile’ or some language to suggest its relative safety to other” over-the-counter pain relievers.

. . . Two years later, in 1977, the FDA’s expert panel delivered its 1,200-page report on pain relievers.

While the committee found that acetaminophen was generally safe when used as directed, it warned that “some advertising for acetaminophen gives the impression that it is much safer than aspirin.” So the panelists urged the FDA to add a clear, specific warning to the acetaminophen label.

The language the panel suggested: “Do not exceed recommended dosage because severe liver damage may occur.” The panel had only advisory power, but it felt so strongly that it told the FDA the warning was “obligatory.”

The company, of course, resisted. The FDA took a decade to offer a “tentative” ruling that didn’t require the company to warn its customers about the dangers of the drug to the liver.

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