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.