The New Face Of FDA Tobacco Control, Mitch Zeller
The first director of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Tobacco Products is stepping away, and the second ever head of the division will be stepping in. Mitchell Zeller, a juris doctorate with a background in tobacco product and dependence treatment policy, is taking the reigns.
Some electronic cigarette community members, advocates, and industry leaders are concerned this may be the start to some very rough (far rougher than thus far) times for electronic cigarettes. Zeller hasn’t yet made any statements as to his plans for electronic cigarettes but we hope to have some soon. In the meantime, here’s what we do know.
From 1982 to 1988 Zeller served the Center for Science in the Public Interest. The center is primarily a non-profit consumer watchdog that spends much of its time beating up fast food companies. The organization has been heavily criticized for putting all blame for obesity on food companies and ignoring the personal responsibility of individuals. From 1988 to 1993, Zeller worked on a government subcommittee conducting oversight of federal health and safety agencies.
In 1993 Zeller joined the FDA helming its Office of Tobacco Programs. In this role, he organized the first major effort to reduce youth access to tobacco. He also served as the FDA’s representative in all things tobacco. Zeller did this until 2000.
On from there, Zeller worked for the American Legacy Foundation, Pinney Associates, and the International Tobacco Control Policy Evaluation Project. None bode well for Zeller’s potential to be an ally to electronic cigarettes. Legacy is an organization that has been quite vocal in its damning of electronic cigarettes. Through Pinney, Zeller consulted extensively for Nicorette and NicoDerm maker GlaxoSmithKline. International Tobacco Control is a group that wages ongoing warfare against tobacco.
Zeller’s extensive consulting with GlaxoSmithKline is the strongest case for conflict of interest that many individuals have brought up. The company makes quite a lot of cash off its nicotine replacement therapies. Even if Zeller no longer has a working relationship with the organization, there’s no way to know that his decisions will be unbiased. Presumably, Zeller can recuse himself from certain decisions or discussions when he feels the conflict of interest is too strong.
There may be a more concerning issue than Zeller’s obvious conflict of interest. Zeller is a die-hard anti-tobacco advocate. His decisions way not be conflicted due to possible financial gains from GlaxoSmithKline, but they may well be based on moral ideals (or outrage) rather than hard science. This could be a particular problem for electronic cigarettes — where the science is rapidly proving them extremely effective and virtually harmless. But that won’t matter if the FDA decides to be a moral waypoint for the tobacco and nicotine industry rather than a regulatory agency.
We hope to have comments from Zeller soon.