FDA, Where's the Praise?

Mitch Morrison, Vice President of Retailer Relations

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The child strained to complete a bite-size puzzle. She manipulated and fussed and, after several tries, finally figured it out. The instructor watched and smiled passively as the 6-year-old looked up, awaiting words of approval. But the praise never came.

I was taken back to this scene, played out at a Montessori school six years ago, when I recently saw that Lawrence Deyton, director of the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products, denied an altogether reasonable request by the National Association of Tobacco Outlets (NATO) to send a “positive reinforcement” letter to retailers who pass the agency’s compliance inspections.

Deyton wrote the following to NATO chief Thomas Briant, which was published in the Oct. 4 edition of our Tobacco E-News (www.cspnet.com/ tobaccoletters11):

“We understand how important it is to you to both comply with FDA regulations and that you would like to be able to recognize your employees with positive reinforcement. Of course, complying with the law is reward in and of itself. That, and the full knowledge that your staff are doing their part to protect kids from underage tobacco use, I know adds meaning to the efforts you and your staff contribute to the health of your communities.” Deyton goes on to acknowledge that the majority of retailers inspected passed the inspection and that results are available to the public on FDA’s website.

Deyton’s message echoes that of the Montessori model my wife and I saw: Achievement is reward in itself.

For a few, Deyton is right; personal accomplishment is sufficient praise. But for the masses, he couldn’t be any more wrong. Praise and acknowledgement are powerful and reaffirming, and not only for the recipient. Praise requires one to be aware of his or her environment.

When I praise a member of my editorial staff, it means I’m taking a personal interest in that person’s performance— and trying to fashion a culture of caring and respect. When people are recognized for outstanding work, it is a win for both the individual and the company.

As quick as we are to criticize, we should be ready to praise—and do so publicly.

The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene understands the importance of publicly recognizing good work and corporate responsibility. The city last year began a grading system for city foodservice establishments.

“The Health Department is issuing restaurant letter grades to help consumers make informed choices about where to eat out. Consumer awareness creates a powerful new incentive for restaurants to maintain the highest food-safety standards,” wrote health commissioner Thomas Farley.

From personal experience, I can tell you that receiving an A has been a boost for many eateries, including local spots that occupy no more than 600 square feet, such as the operator I spoke to in the Wall Street area near CSP’s New York office.

“Customers know my place is clean, my place is good,” the operator told me. “If I would have scored a B or C, I would lose business. It would be really bad.”

Asked if he liked being required to post his grade, the man didn’t hesitate: “Oh, yes. It tells people my food is safe and clean. That’s very important.”

FDA’s Deyton is a good man and is doing a credible job of balancing on a high wire over a bed of molten lava. Physicians and anti-tobacco activists continue to push for even stiffer restrictions on the tobacco industry and, by extension, retailers.

We, on the other hand, are not objecting to sensible regulations such as placing all tobacco products behind the checkout. But we are equally vociferous in protecting our First Amendment rights and the right to market a legal product.

Deyton is far off the mark in publicizing the names of operators who fail compliance, yet not sending congratulatory notes to those who pass. The impression is that the FDA only punishes and doesn’t reward. That a tiny fragment of failing operators—only 3.3% flunked the inspection— represents the norm. And that the huge majority of operators—96.7%—are not relevant and should merely be satisfied that they didn’t fail.

In a society ridden with negativity, the NYC health department understands the importance of public praise.

Deyton and the FDA still have a chance to do the right thing. Will they?

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