A Science Lesson for NYC Shoplifters

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Trip report: Josh goes into a Manhattan CVS to buy some Tylenol and is horrified by generic drug discrimination. Then he steals a piano.

Well, this was sure eye-opening. Very little surprises even former New Yorkers, but let's just say that the city has seen better days (1) and I avoid it when possible. Picture a scene from The Walking Dead with most of them sitting around, not walking.

Yet, recently I found myself in Manhattan in need of some Tylenol. Since there are approximately 14 CVS and Walgreens stores on every block it was not hard to find, but surprisingly hard to buy. Although Tylenol is mostly useless (2) I found it locked up on the shelf and had to push a button to summon a store employee to unlock it. A bedraggled employee responded. 

Me: Who the hell would steal Tylenol? 

Bedraggled Employee: They steal everything and resell it on the street.

Me: But it doesn't even work!

Bedraggled Employee: (Shrugs shoulders)

OK, Tylenol is stolen and resold to people who have a headache and don't care whether it goes away or not. I can live with that. But as a chemist, the following was unacceptable:

It would seem that both those who manage the store and steal from the store could use a little science lesson. Here's why...

Photo credit: Dickweed Jones Studios, NY, NY

It simply makes no sense for Tylenol to be locked up while generic versions of it sit there in the breeze. Not only are they the same medicine, acetaminophen, but it's not uncommon for brand name manufacturers to also make the generic, so a bottle of a store brand of a drug might be identical to the brand name bottle right next to it, except the pill will look different. 

Why should Tylenol be stolen while CVS brand acetaminophen is not? 

I don't know, but It is clearly unfair that the Tylenol bottle is safely locked up while its generic equivalent sits woefully unprotected. If this isn't a case of blatant antigenericism I don't know what is. 

Bad Science Leads to Bad Economics

Let's examine the consequences of antigenericism. They are profound. 

  1. CVS is engaged, perhaps unintentionally, in antiscientific marketing. The company should enact API (active pharmaceutical ingredient)-based security protocol, either locking or unlocking both bottles. In its absence, they are sending a message that their store brand is in some way inferior to Tylenol brand, when in fact both are equally useless, even though Tylenol costs 21% more than its generic brethren.
  2. Shoplifters are likewise being misled. Although it is far easier to walk out of the store with CVS brand acetaminophen, they, just like non-shoplifting consumers, have been brainwashed into believing in the faux-superiority of the Johnson & Johnson product. They should, instead, purloin a balanced portfolio of both store-and-brand name drugs. It's only right.
  3. Likewise, those who make up the secondary market (being polite here) and are buying the stuff on the street should not overpay by 21% because of pharmaceutical naivete. 
  4. Finally, it should be noted that the price of margarine has risen by 20.2% over the past year. Is this a simple coincidence? Hmm. No, this is a conspiracy! I shall consult Marjorie Taylor Greene on this one. She seems to be a good source for fact-checking and is presumably back in action following her "Peach Tree Dish" analysis of artificial meat. 

It's Not Just Tylenol

Antigenericism existed throughout the store. But at least this discrimination was applied equally to different body parts, top, bottom, and middle...


The brand-name toothpaste was similarly incarcerated while the CVS brand was not.


The same "slippery science" was also found in the personal lubricant aisle. 



Equality at last!

Despite the appearance of API equality in the gastrointestinal distress aisle this was, in fact, an outlier. The same antigenericism was in place for Pepcid (locked) and famotidine (the generic, unlocked). (Photo not shown.) At least CVS has displayed corporate social responsibility by sparing people with sphincter-clenching diarrhea the indignity of waiting for the bedraggled employee to unlock the Imodium. 

The fact that this product is unlocked is rater ironic since back in 2018 the idiots at the FDA were considering restricting it to behind-the-counter sales because something like two people on earth were abusing it. Not surprisingly, I left 'em have it for this (See Runs On Imodium Before The FDA Clamps Down).

I did not steal the Tylenol. But I did steal a piano.

New York (Manhattan in particular) has decided that theft isn't such a big deal, hence the locked up personal goods. I'll leave it to the sociologists and criminologists to decide whether or not this policy has anything to do with the Tylenol being locked up or not. Thinking big, I figured "why shouldn't I get in on the action?" Indeed, if Tylenol, handbags, and sneakers are now up for grabs, why not a Steinway grand piano. I've always wanted one!

Fortunately, my trusty colleagues at ACSH realized that I could probably not manage the Steinway (990 pounds) on my own, so they came to my rescue with the ACSH luxury staff car! (On great teams, teammates always have each other's backs.)

The ACSH Luxury Squad to the rescue! (Left, Cameron "Spit Up" English, Center, Dr. Charles "Chuckie D." Dinerstein, Right, Thom "Slots" Golab. Photo credit: Petr Kratochvil, Public Domain Pictures

Things get off to a good start. They even found a parking space right in front of the showroom!

Photo credits; Flickr, Wikimedia Commons

And stealing the piano wasn't too bad...

Since it wasn't locked up we had little trouble walking out with the piano. Feel free to ask Dr. Dinerstein why he has two spines. He's the surgeon. Photo credits: Wikipedia,  Wikimedia Commons

Things turn bad quickly

When we got outside...

Uh oh. The car was stolen. Welcome to New York.


(1) The word that comes to mind rhymes with "spit bowl." Let's leave it at that.

(2) Tylenol on its own is essentially useless. It does have some benefit when combined with NSAIDs or with opioids (if you can get 'em).