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Jack Mitchell, federal investigator who ‘broke open’ tobacco industry, dies at 69

Mr. Mitchell (left) with Jeffrey Wigand, a tobacco industry whistle-blower.
Mr. Mitchell (left) with Jeffrey Wigand, a tobacco industry whistle-blower. Family photo

WASHINGTON — Jack Mitchell, a muckraking journalist who became a federal investigator for the Senate and the Food and Drug Administration, helping to pave the way for government regulation of the tobacco industry by securing the cooperation of a key whistleblower, died Dec. 5 at a hospital in Washington. He was 69.

The cause was non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, said his wife, Patty Davis.

After working for the investigative columnist Jack Anderson, Mr. Mitchell became a Washington correspondent for one of CNN’s first investigative teams; a Senate investigator for more than a decade; and a special assistant to FDA commissioner David Kessler, whose crusading effort to regulate tobacco companies culminated in a 2000 Supreme Court case and subsequent action by Congress.

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‘‘He had a passion for the little guy, for decency,’’ said his wife, the press secretary of the US Consumer Product Safety Commission. ‘‘He wanted to right wrongs and hold people accountable.’’

When he joined the FDA, he helped establish the Office of Special Investigations, where he was tasked with investigating the purchase of human body parts from largely unregulated foreign sources. He soon obtained audio recordings from a front operation in Pennsylvania, where a Russian-born tissue broker offered $5,000 for a body, with a discount for one infected with hepatitis B.

‘‘It was as if they were negotiating for furs or something,’’ said Kessler, the former FDA commissioner. ‘‘There is now infectious-disease testing of these organs because of Jack,’’ he added. ‘‘Literally overnight the regulations got approved.’’

Although Mr. 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.

Crucially, Mr. Mitchell was able to win the trust of whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand, the former head of research and development at Brown & Williamson. After being fired from the Louisville tobacco giant in 1993 amid a dispute over the making of a ‘‘safer cigarette,’’ Wigand began working with journalists under the condition of anonymity, helping reporters make sense of the addictive properties and health hazards of cigarettes.

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He eventually went public in a 1996 segment on ‘‘60 Minutes’’ — later dramatized in the Michael Mann film ‘‘The Insider,’’ starring Russell Crowe — while noting that he and his children had faced anonymous death threats.

By then, Mr. Mitchell and Wigand had been working together about two years. In a phone interview, Wigand recalled being cold-called by Mr. Mitchell, who said he ‘‘got my name from a journalist”; soon after, Wigand flew to Washington, traveling under an assumed name, and was picked up by Mr. Mitchell, who parked away from the office and directed him ‘‘through unmarked entrances up to the commissioner’s office.’’

‘‘He got a whole soup-to-nuts description of cigarette design and addiction,’’ Wigand said.

Perhaps most significantly, Wigand alerted the FDA to the existence of Y-1, a genetically engineered Brown & Williamson tobacco strain that was grown in Brazil and contained twice the nicotine of ordinary tobacco. In 1994, Kessler testified before a House subcommittee that Y-1, and the use of certain ammonia compounds in cigarettes, did away with ‘‘any notion that there is no manipulation and control of nicotine undertaken in the tobacco industry.’’

Kessler went on to push for the FDA to regulate tobacco, an effort that was put on hold in 2000, when the Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 that the agency did not have the authority to do so. Finally, in 2009, President Barack Obama signed the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, broadening the FDA’s authority to include tobacco manufacturing, advertising and marketing.

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Mr. Mitchell’s work at the FDA coincided with a raft of lawsuits filed by states against the tobacco industry, which culminated in a $206 billion settlement in 1998. And while Mr. Mitchell initially viewed the 2009 legislation as a victory of his earlier work, friends said, it proved to be a disappointment, as he sought vigorous regulatory actions that never seemed to occur.

In 2014, a surgeon general’s report estimated that more than 480,000 Americans are killed by cigarette smoking each year, and cited tobacco use as the country’s ‘‘single largest preventable cause of death and disease.’’

John Howard Mitchell was born in Rochester, Pa., on Sept. 29, 1950, and raised in nearby Beaver. His father was the editor of the local newspaper, and his mother was a homemaker.

In addition to his wife of 24 years, survivors include a daughter, Hailey Mitchell, of Silver Spring, Md.; and a brother.

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.’’

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