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EP32 Exclusive Q&A with Mitch Zeller, Director of the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products
Alexandra Arriaga: In this episode, we got to sit down with a director of the FDA Center for Tobacco Products Mitch Zeller for an exclusive Q&A. Mr. Zeller recently participated in the event called E-cigarettes, the Tectonic Shift in Nicotine and Tobacco Consumption hosted by the NYU College of Global Public Health. At the event he was joined by other experts to discuss the role of e-cigarettes and ending the tobacco epidemic. In this interview with Mr. Zeller, we'll learn more about his early beginnings, how he stayed true to his cause of fighting the number one preventable cause of death and some advice he would give to all young public health professionals looking to make a change in the world.
Mitch Zeller: Hello.
Alexandra Arriaga: How are you doing today?
Mitch Zeller: Good. I'm doing fine.
Alexandra Arriaga: That's perfect. So looking back to 1994, you accepted what you thought would be a two week assignment with the then FDA commissioner, Dr. David Kessler. That set your career path to where you are today, which is directing the Center for Tobacco Products at the FDA of course. So what advice would you give yourself if you could go back in time?
Mitch Zeller: Well, in 1994 I'd already been working on FDA-related issues as an attorney for 12 years, but had not worked on tobacco. My work on tobacco began, as you said, in 1994. I think if I could go back to the 1994 Mitch Zeller, I think with everything that I've learned over the last 24 years, almost a quarter of a century is when you're working on big impactful public health issues that require policy change, you have to have patience. Big change doesn't happen overnight. It doesn't matter what the issue is, if it's a big issue and if it requires policies being altered, and especially if there's a role for government in making that happen, things don't happen overnight. So you have to have patience, you have to be in it for the long game, but you also have to have a sense of you're never going to get everything that you want. So at what point are you prepared to declare victory that you've achieved enough? I think the 1994 Mitch Zeller, even though I'd been working in the field at that point for 12 years as a lawyer advocate, as a congressional council doing oversight of FDA and the Department of Agriculture. I don't think that I was wise and mature enough at that point to understand that when you’ve taken on something big, you have to give it time and you have to be in it for the long haul. I think that would have helped me a bit back then.
Alexandra Arriaga: And looking into the future, what's it like to fight for public health causes in these divided and contentious times?
Mitch Zeller: There's always going to be conflict and tension at at at any point in time in the history of public health. Again, when you're working on fundamental policy change. One of the particular challenges in our field of tobacco control is the tension and conflict that exists within the field itself on issues related to harm reduction especially. We have divided camps in public health and tobacco control, and the different camps seem more interested in criticizing others rather than a quest or a search for common ground. So I think that one of the biggest challenges for us in this particular field, whether we work domestically or whether we work globally to reduce the harm, the disease and death from tobacco use is sometimes the absence of common ground amongst the participants in the debate, in the dialogue. And if we could at least have an agreement to principles, something that could, could guide our work regardless of what our day jobs are, advocates, practitioners, policymakers, what have you. I think that that would help. I think the absence of that kind of common ground is hurting the field now, but I'm going to remain optimistic that the right people on all sides of these ongoing debates will join the journey for that quest for common ground and that we will get it.
Alexandra Arriaga: And for those 20 somethings out there who are maybe just starting their careers in public health and they want to leave their mark, of course they want to make a difference. What is the best guidance that you could give them?
Mitch Zeller: The first thing that I would say is that's great that you want to do public health, that you're working in a program like this, that you're seeking practical opportunities, so you've already made the most important decision, which is that this is what you want to do regardless of what the issue is. Find a mentor, find a role model, attach yourself to someone with experience. This helped me in my career as a public interest attorney at the very beginning of my career when I was in law school. I was in a clinical program for two years and the lawyers that I worked with and and and worked for were really instrumental role models for me even before I got my first job out of law school. Find the mentor, find the role model, be willing to work very hard and be willing to sort of earn your stripes early on in your career. You'll get bigger, broader, bolder opportunities mid career and later. But at the beginning, just be willing to work really, really hard and never lose the passion for public health. Again, regardless of what the issue is. The amazing thing for me, cause I've been doing this now for 36 years, these FDA-related issues from everything from food labeling and food safety to dietary supplements, human drugs, animal drugs, and for the last 24 years, tobacco. The passion that exists in the public health world. Even sometimes where we don't have that common ground on, on principles. The passion is always there and never lose the passion. And if you can surround yourself with people who are further down the career path and who can be mentors and role models, then soak up the knowledge, be a sponge, soak it all up. Because one day you'll be in the position of being the mentor, not the mentee. And you'll be able to look back on your career and remember those critical opportunities that you seized because you were willing to do the hard work and roll up your sleeves and earn your stripes.
Alexandra Arriaga: That's great advice. Thank you. Here at NYU we often say that public health isn't just a career path, it's a calling. So you worked all your life on these amazing causes and now you have a certain reputation. My question to you is, how do you prevent yourself from getting knocked off course? How do you remain motivated for these things when they're not working out the way that you thought they would?
Mitch Zeller: It's a really important question and especially someone beginning their career to think about, and it goes back to one of the things that I said earlier, which is that major policy change doesn't happen overnight. You never get everything that you're seeking. So if you're going to be working on a domestic or global public health policy issue that involves profound change. So in my world that's working on a policy that could one day create a marketplace where cigarettes are no longer addictive, that is a game changing policy. It's not going to happen overnight. I've dedicated a large part of, of more than 10 years just on that issue. And, and we still don't even have a proposed rule out yet, but we're making progress. As regulators, we can only follow the regulatory science. The science is our North Star, our guide, if you will. The science is encouraging and the science is what we will follow to get us there. So as long as you have the passion for whatever it is that you're working on and you prepare it to be in it for the long haul and you're not going to let perfect be the enemy of the good. And at some point you can declare victory. Even if you don't get everything that you're seeking, then you'll never lose that passion and you'll never lose that motivation. It helps to be surrounded by colleagues who share your vision and who you can work well with. I'm one of those people who does much better working in a group than working individually and I'm constantly re-energized by being surrounded by colleagues who bring the same degree of passion and motivation to their work. In my day job where I'm responsible for running a center of now over 800 people, I'm constantly inspired and motivated by everyone who I work with from people who are newly minted masters, to people who just got their PhD to mid-career people and more experienced. They bring the passion and they bring the enthusiasm. And I find it very inspiring.
Alexandra Arriaga: Thank you for all the wonderful advice and thank you so much for joining us.
Mitch Zeller: Thank you.