RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — A Food and Drug Administration veteran who helped spearhead efforts to regulate the tobacco industry in the 1990s is taking over the agency's Center for Tobacco Products.
Mitch Zeller will become the center's director on March 4, FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg said in an internal memo sent late Thursday and confirmed by The Associated Press.
The center was created following a 2009 law gave the FDA authority to regulate a number of aspects of tobacco marketing and manufacturing, though the agency cannot ban nicotine or cigarettes outright. Its first chief, Dr. Lawrence Deyton, plans to step down and become a professor of medicine and health policy at George Washington University, Hamburg said.
Under Zeller's leadership, Hamburg said the center's "work will continue to vigorously build FDA's role in tobacco product regulation and efforts to improve public health."
Zeller, who served as associate commissioner and director of agency's Office of Tobacco Programs from 1993 until 2000, is currently an executive with Pinney Associates, a Maryland-based pharmaceutical consulting firm that does work for GlaxoSmithKline, the leading seller of nicotine-replacement therapy products.
He previously served as an executive with the American Legacy Foundation, the Washington, D.C.-based anti-smoking organization established as part of the settlement between states and the tobacco industry.
"For the longest time there was no regulation, it was the wild, wild west in the marketplace," Zeller said in an interview with the AP last year discussing the documentary "Addiction Incorporated," which profiled a Richmond, Va.-based Philip Morris USA whistleblower's efforts that eventually led to the heads of the major cigarette companies to testify in front of Congress in 1994 about the addictive nature of cigarette smoke. "We can't say that regulation alone is going to reduce all the death and disease from tobacco, but I look at it as a vital element of a comprehensive national tobacco control program."
Zeller said that while cigarettes are "absolutely a legal product to sell to adults, to market to adults," the tobacco industry engineered them to "create and sustain addiction."
"The reason why it is the leading preventable cause of death and disease is because people smoke for the nicotine but they die from the tar, and the product is deliberately designed to make that happen," he said. "I don't believe we have the science now, but (the FDA) could one day be in a position to use these newfound tools to do something about the addictiveness of cigarettes."
While the regulatory framework was passed in 2009, the agency has taken its time assessing the scientific evidence for what would best improve public health, leaving the future of the industry and effects on both companies and consumers under a cloud of smoke.
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