As a college student during the 1970s, Lawrence Deyton grew a ponytail to the middle of his back. His mother “hated it, she just hated it,” he said.
So the young man, headed toward a career in public health, offered a trade.
“Quit smoking, and I’ll cut my ponytail. She said, ‘Deal,’ ” recalled Deyton, sporting considerably less hair now. His mother quit the Pall Malls, and he mailed her the remains of his coiffure.
She lived 35 more years, said Deyton, director of the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Tobacco Products. “In her effects, after she died, there was the ponytail.”
Deyton, 58, is a candidate for the federal government’s Career Achievement Medal, one of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service’s Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals. The honors are known as the Academy Awards of government workers.
Deyton has spent his career trying to improve public health. Before working on tobacco, he was deeply involved in the campaign against AIDS as a leader of more than 200 National Institutes of Health-funded clinical trials of HIV therapies in the late 1980s and the 1990s. He diversified the participants in the trials, bringing in thousands of new patients.
“I cannot say how cutting-edge his approach was at the time,” Margaret A. Hamburg, the FDA commissioner, said in nominating Deyton for the award. “It brought research to communities that needed it. He understood the disconnect between patients and research, and he found a new way to do testing and develop products.”
In 1998, he became director of HIV/AIDS treatment programs at the Department of Veterans Affairs, at the time the nation’s largest provider of care for HIV-
infected patients. Four years later, he became director of a broader public health group within VA that oversaw programs aimed at hepatitis C, bioterrorism, possible flu pandemic and tobacco use, as well as HIV. He became VA’s chief health officer in 2006.
As the first employee of the FDA’s new Center for Tobacco Products, he leads the nationwide effort to reduce tobacco-related disease, which still causes 443,000 deaths each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Smokers die, on average, 14 years earlier than nonsmokers.
“I have huge respect for smokers who are addicted, especially those trying to quit,” said Deyton, who has been at his current job for two years. “I don’t damn them. I don’t put them down. Nicotine is truly one of the most addictive products on the planet . . . as addictive as heroin and cocaine. So make no mistake: [Quitting] is not just a matter of will.”
Armed with a new law that gives the FDA the power to regulate the way tobacco is marketed, distributed and sold, the agency also requires that tobacco companies identify each of the 4,000-plus ingredients in cigarettes.
“I have said cigarettes, until now, are the only mass-consumed product in America that the consumer didn’t know what’s in it,” Deyton said. “We have a responsibility to understand what those products are and what it means to human health, and we are working on that now.”
He continued: “We’ve known for a long time how dangerous tobacco use is. How do we move to the next step and give the public the tools for behavior change, to make the right decision for themselves? We don’t want to say to an adult, ‘You can’t do certain things.’ We want to give the right information to make decisions for themselves. Kids are different. . . . [They] don’t realize that they’re picking up something that could start them on a lifetime habit that kills 50 percent of its users.”
Deyton, known all his life by his childhood nickname “Bopper” (for the first word he uttered), tried cigarettes as a teenager.
“I hated it. It didn’t do anything for me,” he said, recalling the harsh taste of Pall Malls and the harsh realization of how smoking really looked.
“I was probably 16 or 17. I had just started driving, and Mom asked me to go pick up the dry cleaning.”
In the car, he discovered his mother’s pack, with a few smokes inside.
“I’m driving, and I feel like I’m on top of the world,” he said. “I’ve got the car. The windows are down. I got my cigarette. . . . I look over and see these cars [in a reflection] and this stupid . . . teenager is in a car smoking. I turned to look at this jerk, and there was nobody there but me. It was me.”
Deyton is the son of a doctor and bio-statistician who met while setting up polio rehabilitation clinics. He was born in Okmulgee, Okla., on the Muscogee reservation. He grew up in suburban St. Louis, the youngest of five siblings, all of whom have gone into health care.
He graduated from the University of Kansas and received a master’s degree in public health from the Harvard School of Public Health. He worked on Capitol Hill as a legislative aide and became a staff member at the old Department of Health, Education and Welfare.
At the same time, he helped found the Whitman-Walker Clinic as a health clinic for gay men and lesbians before AIDS redefined everything and the clinic became the hub for HIV treatment. Deyton left the government job and the clinic to go to medical school at George Washington University and to do postdoctorate training at the University of Southern California.
Looking forward, Deyton thinks health literacy is the most important and under-recognized problem in health care.
“If we could correct health literacy in this nation, a lot of those chronic, preventable diseases that are taking up a huge amount not just of the nation’s economics but individuals’ lives would change dramatically,” he said.
He still practices medicine on Fridays, seeing veterans at a clinic. There is little danger that he will turn entirely to private practice or lab work, however.
“It’s why I think government service is so great,” he said. “I like the pure joy of exploration of applying scientific principles to the good of the population.”