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Trump’s New FDA Nominee Advances in the Senate—But Faces Tough Questions About Vaping

December 3, 2019, 9:45 PM UTC

Dr. Stephen Hahn, President Donald Trump’s nominee to be the next commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), passed a key test on Tuesday when a Senate committee advanced his nomination to the full chamber on an 18-5 vote.

Hahn is a cancer doctor who serves as the chief medical executive at the renowned MD Anderson Cancer Center in Texas. Currently, another oncologist, Dr. Ned Sharpless, the former director of the National Cancer Institute, serves as the agency’s acting chief. Sharpless took over that interim role after the previous FDA director, Dr. Scott Gottlieb, unexpectedly exited back in March.

The lopsided 18-5 vote by the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) committee likely means that Hahn will ultimately be confirmed by the entire Senate—a goal that HELP committee chairman Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican, said he hopes to achieve by the end of the year. But critics have pointed to the hot-button issue of vaping and e-cigarette regulation as a criticism against Hahn.

One notable critic on the Senate committee who ultimately voted to advance Hahn’s nomination is Republican Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah. In November, Romney had brought attention to the Trump administration’s seeming retrenchment on stringent, anti-vaping rules for flavored e-cigarette products that could potentially target children.

“While I hope the Administration will act without further delay on its prior proposal to ban flavors that appeal to kids, I will also continue to push for my legislation that bans flavors, ensures that vaping cartridges are tamper-proof, and bans e-cigarettes from schools,” he wrote.

While Hahn agreed that flavored e-cigarettes are “an important, urgent crisis in this country” and said he believed “we need to take aggressive action” to stop another generation of teenagers from becoming addicted to tobacco and nicotine, he dodged the issue of how the Trump administration had retrenched a bit on the flavored pods issue.

“There are many issues that will come before the commissioner that are complex and engender honest disagreement,” Hahn said at the time. “When that occurs, I pledge to listen, study and assess all viewpoints.”

Romney repeated the criticisms on Tuesday, but voted for the FDA nominee regardless.

The Senate HELP committee’s ranking Democrat, Washington’s Sen. Patty Murray, did not vote for Hahn, citing the possibility that he wouldn’t back aggressive vaping and e-cigarette regulation.

The political dynamics are complex. For instance, Sharpless, the acting FDA commissioner, had been strongly endorsed by multiple health care groups and former FDA chief Gottlieb himself. Gottlieb, for his part, has been both lauded and criticized for his part in cracking down on youth smoking and e-cigarette companies during his tenure. He had publicly endorsed Sharpless to be his permanent replacement.

But despite the vaping regulation concerns, Hahn has received strong endorsements from a major contingent of patient advocacy groups including the American Cancer Action Network, American Society of Clinical Oncology (one of the largest cancer groups in the world), and others.

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