How many more hits can Tylenol take?

Despite the fifth recall in a year from the company concerning Tylenol products, all involving issues of manufacturing quality, analysts still rate Johnson & Johnson a buy. Here is why you should be worried.

Plenty more.

Less than four months ago I wrote here about what I called the second Tylenol scare . (Image of Childrens' Tylenol bottle from Tylenol.com.)

I misspoke.

On May 1 Johnson & Johnson issued a recall covering its brands for kids, and extending to allergy labels like Benadryl and Zyrtec.

It's the fifth recall in a year from the company concerning Tylenol products, all involving issues of manufacturing quality.

But to Johnson & Johnson it's no big deal.

Those with long memories (or first class Google skills) may recall the 1982 Tylenol murders, a series of poisonings, resulting in a mass recall of the product that became a classic case of business responsibilitiy.

The company was not at fault in that case. After the recall, over the counter medicines received plastic or metal under-caps as proof they had not been tampered with after manufacturing. Still, the company lost $100 million and the stock took a hit.

So far, the stock has not taken a hit. Barron's is pounding the table for the stock, citing earnings growth, and as of mid-day on May 3 the stock was up over $1 per share.

Why? Probably because Johnson & Johnson is far bigger and more diversified than it was in 1982. It's a big pharmaceutical house that has recently bought a string of competitors with promising therapies in Alzheimer's and cancer therapy in the pipeline.

It takes a massive fault, like the BP oil spill, to really impact a stock when a company gets that big. The penalties that companies once feared can now be dealt with in the normal course of business.

Even government warnings, a year ago, for consumers to cut back their use of over-the-counter pain relievers like Tylenol has not impacted the company financially.

Put it this way. The most recent sales figures for Tylenol offered by the company, dated to 2004, were about $2.1 billion. For the quarter ending in April, Johnson & Johnson reported net income of over $4.5 billion.

J&J is not the only company in the health care space to have grown so large and so diversified that events which could once have killed them are now no big deal.

If companies are people under the law, supermen with eternal interests, and if the cost of their crimes is now a rounding error, where does that leave law enforcement when something really bad happens? Has the drug industry become too big to police?

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com