December 14, 2019 Liz Borkowski, MPH 3Comment

Jack Mitchell, a key contributor to tobacco regulation and champion for public health, died on Dec. 5 of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. A Washington Post obituary by Harrison Smith traces Mitchell’s impressive career, which involved investigative reporting for CNN, many years of government service, and serving as director of health policy at the nonprofit National Center for Health Research.

Mitchell worked in both the executive and legislative branches of the federal government. His contributions included helping to establish FDA’s Office of Special Investigations; working as chief investigator for the Senate’s Special Committee on Aging; and contributing to the Physician Payments Sunshine Act, a provision of the Affordable Care Act that requires medical product manufacturers to disclose payments they make to physicians and teaching hospitals. One of the most memorable episodes of his long career came when he worked as a special assistant to FDA Commissioner David Kessler, who spoke to Smith about Mitchell’s work.

Kessler explained to Smith that Mitchell was able to win the trust of whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand, who had headed research and development at tobacco giant Brown & Williamson, and whose identity was confidential until Wigand went public in a 1996 “60 Minutes” segment. Wigand disclosed to Mitchell and Kessler that Brown & Williamson genetically engineered a tobacco strain that contained twice the nicotine of standard tobacco. With Wigand’s information, Kessler’s 1994 testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Health and the Environment put to rest “any notion that there is no manipulation and control of nicotine undertaken in the tobacco industry.” That evidence helped lay the groundwork for FDA regulation of tobacco – a work that’s still in progress but has the potential to prevent chronic disease for millions. Smith writes:

Although [Mitchell] remained almost entirely outside the public eye, Kessler said, “he broke open tobacco,” helping build the case that cigarettes — previously manufactured and sold with few restrictions from the states and Congress — should be regulated by the FDA.

… Mr. Mitchell had never expected his work on tobacco issues to result in a Supreme Court case and a battle over FDA oversight, Kessler said. “But because of Jack and others, we had all this evidence,” which he credited with shifting public opinion. “In some ways, that was more important than any court case. You’re manipulating the level of nicotine, and that’s going to keep kids hooked? That changed how this country views tobacco.”

“He had a passion for the little guy, for decency,” Mitchell’s wife, Patty Davis (the press secretary for the US Consumer Product Safety Commission), told Smith. “He wanted to right wrongs and hold people accountable.”

I had the great fortune to work with Jack Mitchell over the past couple of years as his organization and mine joined a cross-issue effort to strengthen scientific integrity at federal agencies. He was generous with his time and extensive expertise, helping us understand the processes and behind-the-scenes forces in laws and regulations and always working toward the goal of improving public health. I learned a great deal from him and was always grateful for his thoughtfulness and collaborative spirit. My thoughts are with his family, friends, and colleagues as they mourn the loss of this public health champion.

3 thoughts on “Remembering Jack Mitchell, a public health champion

  1. It was with a heavy heart that I learned of Jack’s passing last week.

    Jack was a consummate public health advocate whose understanding of the intersection of industry, regulation, and government was remarkable. I regularly sought his consult over the past several years about the role that FDA should play in protecting us from unsafe products, and how politics can get in the way of that mission.

    We live in a time when so many inside and outside of government are trying to replicate big tobacco’s methods to prevent adequate public protections. One of Jack’s legacies was to help others understand the methods that some companies, trade groups, and elected officials use to avoid accountability, and ways to expose their actions. Jack’s advice, many contacts, and knowledge was extremely valuable to the public interest community. He will be missed for his knowledge alone.

    Yet I will miss the man, too. I only recently learned of his many accomplishments. Jack was modest and unassuming, quiet and determined, and always present. He openly shared what resources he had, in service of a greater good. My heart goes out to his wife Patty, National Center for Health Research staff, and all who knew and loved him.

  2. Working with Jack over the last 3 years revealed a smart, compassionate, strategic and generous hearted man. His commitment to public health, the important role of science and evidence in our public policy decision-making was clear to all who knew him, including me. His current work at the National Center for Health Research built upon his years of public service. In these very challenging times, he brought his experience and insight into the working of FDA, HHS and Congress to the table, and he was hard at work defending our shared values.
    My condolences to his family, friends and colleagues. The American public has lost a great champion.

  3. I had the pleasure of working with Jack, around the topic of increased access to life saving medicines. I was immediately moved by how he managed to be at once very knowledgeable, understated and thoughtful. I learned that he had been an ally for whistleblowers, stemming back to his time working in the Senate – and likely during his investigative reporting as well. Indeed, he had an impressive career, and his life’s work was dedicated to helping the underdog expose abuses of power that betray the public trust. Yet given Jack’s humility and quiet manner, one likely would not know of his long list of accomplishments without doing some digging of our own. I am grateful for the few occasions I got to work with Jack, and he will be deeply missed.

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