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Senators grill Stephen Hahn, nominee to head the FDA, on vaping policy

The hearing comes as the Trump administration withdraws its plan to reduce nicotine in cigarettes.

Stephen Hahn is a Texas oncologist nominated by President Trump to be the next commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration. (University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center/AP)

Senators on Wednesday used the confirmation hearing of Stephen Hahn, the Trump administration’s nominee to head the Food and Drug Administration, to send a message to the White House: They’re upset about backtracking on a flavored e-cigarette ban, promised by the president just two months ago.

Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the top Democrat on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, told Hahn the country needed “an FDA commissioner who will push back hard to put children’s health first.” She asked whether he would commit to finalizing the administration proposal, which would have barred sales of non-tobacco-flavored e-cigarettes and was touted by President Trump in September.

Hahn, a radiation oncologist who is the chief medical officer of MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, declined to commit to implementing the ban. He said he was not part of discussions on the policy and hadn’t talked to Trump about it but supported “aggressive action to protect our children.”

In a statement, the White House said Trump will meet Friday with advocates, medical associations and state officials on the e-cigarette issue. “As the president has said, there is a serious problem among our youth and their growing addiction to e-cigarettes,” the statement read. “The policymaking process is not stalled — it continues to move forward. This meeting will allow the president and other administration officials an opportunity to hear from a large group, representing all sides as we continue to develop responsible guidelines that protect the public health and the American people.”

The Washington Post reported Sunday that Trump refused to sign off on a planned ban on most flavored e-cigarettes just hours before it was to be unveiled on Nov. 5 because of worries that job losses in the vaping industry and disgruntled vapers could hurt his reelection prospects.

The developments Wednesday occurred as the administration signaled the rollback of another critical tobacco policy: its plan to compel cigarette companies to sharply reduce nicotine in their products to minimally addictive levels. The goal of the effort, put forward by then-FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb, was to reduce the 480,000 smoking-related deaths in the United States every year.

The administration’s latest regulatory agenda, released Wednesday, showed that the nicotine-reduction plan was withdrawn in October. In a tweet, Robert Califf, who was FDA commissioner during the Obama administration, said the change marked “a sad day for future grandchildren. They will have fewer grandparents because of this.”

On e-cigarettes, anger about the delay in implementing the flavor ban came from both parties during the Hahn hearing. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) called youth vaping “the canary in the coal mine, or better, the child in the vaping room,” and asked Hahn whether the FDA could take action to protect teens if the White House were opposed.

Hahn responded that while he was “completely alarmed” by federal data showing that almost 28 percent of high schoolers are vaping, he didn’t want toprejudge” the administration’s vaping policy and “I don’t have all the facts.” Hahn repeatedly pledged to use “science and data” to tackle a wide range of agency challenges, whether they involve e-cigarettes or the importation of less expensive drugs made overseas.

Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) accused Hahn of dodging questions on the flavor ban. “I will tell you that I am less than happy with many of answers you gave on vaping and the potential ban on e-cigarettes,” he said. “I just don’t think it was you. I think it was prep from handlers.

Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) defended Hahn, saying he didn’t think it was fair to expect the Texas oncologist to state the position of an administration he hadn’t yet joined.

Alexander said the committee would vote on Hahn’s nomination on Dec. 3, with a goal of getting him confirmed by the end of the year. Earlier this week, five previous FDA commissioners endorsed him for the job — Gottlieb; the Obama administration’s Califf and Margaret Hamburg; and the George W. Bush administration’s Mark McClellan and Andrew von Eschenbach. They stressed the importance of installing a permanent FDA commissioner quickly.

Hahn, who is responsible for overseeing clinical care at MD Anderson, one of the nation’s leading cancer centers, previously served as chief operating officer of the hospital during a period of big losses and staff cuts. He has been praised for helping engineer its financial turnaround and is known as a consensus builder with a strong research record.

The nicotine-reduction plan withdrawn by the administration was outlined by Gottlieb in 2017 and was part of the administration’s regulatory agenda as recently as last spring. Critics have said the withdrawal, along with the administration’s apparent lack of interest in a Gottlieb-proposed ban on menthol cigarettes, suggests that tobacco industry and tobacco-state lawmakers managed to kill the ideas.

“We are seeing a retreat from strong action that would reduce the burden caused by tobacco in the United States,” said Erika Sward, a spokeswoman for the American Lung Association. Matthew L. Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said if the FDA drops its plan to limit nicotine levels in cigarettes, “it will miss an unprecedented opportunity to improve health and save lives in our country.”

An FDA statement said that pulling the nicotine regulation did not mean the agency would no longer work on the issue. “FDA is focused on implementing a science-based, comprehensive approach to tobacco and nicotine regulation,” the statement said. “As part of this effort, FDA continues to gather evidence and data on an ongoing basis regarding all tobacco products.”

Amit Narang, regulatory policy advocate at Public Citizen, took issue with the comment. “It is completely inaccurate for FDA to claim it is still working on the nicotine levels rulemaking,” he said. “It is listed as withdrawn and as a completed action.”

Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.

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