Tylenol case unlikely to affect nondrug packaging

The current heightened interest in tamper-resistant packaging isn't likely to spread beyond the over-the-counter drug industry.

In a spot check with several marketing experts, all doubted that the contamination of the drug Tylenol, apparently while it was on store shelves, would have an immediate effect on the packaging of food or other products.

''People still have confidence in what American companies manufacture and in the distribution system,'' argues Robert Young, associate professor of marketing at Northeastern University in Boston. He says it is unlikely that drugs will be moved behind the counter. ''I think six weeks from now, maybe 1 in 100 customers will be saying 'I only want a product that's been behind the counter.' If 50 out of 100 demand such a change, he says, then stores would have to respond.

''We have gotten to the point where advertisers count on products being available on the shelf'' rather than behind a counter, says Steven Coelen, associate professor of marketing and social forecasting at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Packaging often helps to sell by explaining the product, he says. For example, a shampoo package may tell in detail how to use the contents and spur confidence to make the purchase.

Some consumer groups are concerned that the Food and Drug Administration is letting too many drugs be shifted from prescription to over-the-counter status, moving them from behind the counter to drug and supermarket shelves. Neil L. Pruitt, president of the retail druggists association, has called for keeping more drugs in the hands of pharmacists to reduce the possibility of tampering.

Rep. Edward Madigan (R) of Illinois has announced he will introduce legislation requiring over-the-counter drugs to be sealed with a warning label. The drug industry has offered to help the Reagan administration establish new standards for drug packaging, partly to avoid the development of a patchwork of local and state regulations. Cook County in Illinois, which includes Chicago, already has enacted a law requiring seals on drug and medicine containers that will take effect in 90 days. The Massachusetts Legislature opened hearings Oct. 12 on a similar measure.

Meanwhile, the largest industrial design firm in New England, Gregory Fossella Associates, is already ''in the process of talking to some of the companies, finding out their attitudes, what they have in mind,'' says Gregory Fossella. It appears, he says, that there is ''going to be a redo of extensive lines of (drug) packaging,'' he says. The companies may opt for an existing method of better securing their products or they may seek ''something new from scratch'' in packaging design, he says.

At the opening session of the National Association of Retail Druggists convention in Boston over the weekend, the president of the company that manufactures Tylenol confirmed that the drug would reappear in a tamper-resistant package within a few months. The official, Jack O'Brien, president of McNeil Pharmaceuticals, added that an ''exhaustive examination'' of McNeil facilities had led the company to the conclusion that there was ''no possibility'' the drug capsules had been tampered with during manufacture or handling by the company.

McNeil, he added, now faces ''one of the most gigantic challenges in the rebuilding of consumer confidence'' in US history following the deaths of seven Chicago-area persons who took the contaminated capsules.

The Tylenol drug capsules, the most popular in their category and available on drug and grocery store shelves without prescription across the US and overseas, were packed in a container with only a wad of cotton and an outer lid.

Packing experts say there are a number of methods now available that would provide a more tamper-resistant package. The purpose of these is to alert the buyer if the package has been opened since it left the manufacturer. The methods include sealing each dose in its own wrapper; using tamper-proof bands, such as those on disposable soft drink bottles; placing inner seals, such as those used in instant coffee jars, over the mouth of the containers, and wrapping in clear plastic.

A heat-shrunk, plastic wrap around the carton, says Mr. Fossella, would be difficult be open without a noticeable sign.

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