Alumna Profile: Mariestela Buhay ’11
Mariestela Buhay has made a career out of the tobacco regulation and enforcement work that she began ten years ago under the leadership of Prof. Kathi Hoke in the Public Health Law Clinic. After eight years of her “grueling and messy and fulfilling” career at the Center for Tobacco Products at the FDA, she remains as committed as ever to the power of federal regulation to affect positive public health outcomes.
Buhay came to University of Maryland for our top-ranked Law & Health Care Program and the Public Health Law Clinic, which at that time was focusing specifically on tobacco control. While she broadly knew that she wanted to follow both of her parents into work at the FDA, she recognized that with the passage of the Tobacco Control Act of 2009, federal tobacco regulation and enforcement would be an emerging area of law. She jumped at the opportunity to enroll in the Public Health Law Clinic and pursue legal work at the intersection of her interest in the FDA and this unique opportunity at the advent of federal tobacco enforcement.
Buhay’s introduction to tobacco regulation began with her first major clinic assignment. She was charged with researching and drafting a citizen’s petition, which is a formal request that an agency examine a particular problem and take a particular action. Her petition asked the FDA to address regulatory gaps in the requirements for packaging of little cigars, or “cigarillos,” that enabled them to be sold individually rather than in packs and imposed fewer restrictions on product placement. Public health officials knew that this created a significant access point for tobacco experimentation, because cigarillos were being marketed to teenagers who could generally afford to buy a $2 cigarillo but would be less likely to purchase an entire pack. Buhay’s petition asked, among other things, that the FDA pass a rule requiring manufacturers to package little cigars in a pack so that the cost would be difficult for teenagers to afford.
The petition, which the Maryland Attorney General and several state legislators signed on to, was submitted to the FDA right before Buhay graduated in 2011. The FDA restricted product placement of cigarillos in 2014, but never took action to require that they be sold in packs.
Nevertheless, Buhay was inspired by her work at the Public Health Law Clinic and was thrilled to be hired for a position at the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products. Prof. Hoke said that she is “not surprised that [Buhay] was able to transfer her clinic experience directly into a job and, now, a career.” Hoke remembers her student fondly and says that Buhay’s excellent citizen’s petition demonstrated that she “had experience writing within the regulatory scheme over tobacco products, and so she was a very attractive candidate for the FDA.”
Eight years into her tenure, Buhay now plays a lead role enforcing compliance with the advertising and labeling of tobacco products as regulatory counsel in the Office of Compliance at the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products. She reviews and charges cases stemming from undercover inspections at retail locations across the country, imposing penalties ranging from civil monetary penalties to requesting a court to issue a 30-day “stop sale” order to the business for continued violations. Each week, her team processes between 100-125 cases from across the country. Their aim is to preclude retail establishments from selling or marketing tobacco products to minors. Her work seems to have come full circle, as many of the products she is in charge of regulating are cigars and cigarillos. And cigarillos still have a way of flying under the radar—she knows from available data that clerks don’t ask for ID when kids come in and ask for “singles,” whereas they often require ID when kids are buying a pack of cigarettes.
While Buhay wishes that the “simple” fix she advocated for in her citizen’s petition had been enacted, she now understands from the administrative side the many reasons that the rulemaking process is so difficult. But she is comfortable with using the power of the enforcement tools that she has to effectuate change. “I learned in clinic about how this addiction cycle begins, and to be able to take a lot more action and issue an order to a retail establishment that they can’t sell a product, that’s an amazing power,” says Buhay. Whether through more regulation or more enforcement, she hopes to move every community a step closer to embracing the idea that tobacco products are truly bad for your health and that communities should take all possible actions to reduce future tobacco dependence.