Senate Health Committee Backs Hahn for FDA Commissioner

Alicia Ault

December 03, 2019

A Senate health committee approved the nomination today of Stephen Hahn, MD, chief medical officer of the MD Anderson Cancer Center, to be the next commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration — but not without the dissent of a handful of members who object to his lack of a firm position on e-cigarettes.

Dr Stephen Hahn
Source: MD Anderson Cancer Center

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) committee voted 18-5 in favor of Hahn, a radiation oncologist, who will still need confirmation by the full Senate. That vote will likely happen before the Senate recesses for the holidays on December 16, said HELP committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.).

While Alexander praised Hahn, the top Democrat on the panel, Patty Murray (Washington), said, "I'm just not convinced Dr Hahn is the right pick for the job." She voted against his nomination.

Murray said she's had concerns about what she called a lack of government experience and lack of experience "leading an organization as complex as the FDA."

But what gave her special pause, she said, was that "when pressed several times by members on both sides of the aisle, Dr Hahn refused to commit to implementing a strong policy to clear non–tobacco-flavored e-cigarettes that have not undergone FDA review from the market, like the Trump Administration promised to do before it heard from the tobacco industry and reversed course."

Added Murray, "That is a big red flag for me and why I will be voting against his nomination." 

Murray was joined in dissent by fellow Democrats Elizabeth Warren (Massachusetts), Bernie Sanders (Vermont), Maggie Hassan (New Hampshire), and Tina Smith (Minnesota).

Mix of Support and Pushback

All the Republicans on the panel voted for Hahn, including Mitt Romney (Utah), who said he did so "with some degree of concern."

Romney said he had hoped that in the earlier confirmation hearing Hahn "would express very clearly that he would follow science with regards to vaping, specifically that he would place the interest of public health above any other interest, including political interest. And that if, for some reason, he was directed to take action that was contrary to his view as a professional and as a scientist and as a doctor that he would clearly state that he was being directed to do so at the minimum, and perhaps he'd consider resignation."

Even without that reassurance, Romney said he considered Hahn a "solid professional with the right instincts," and that he'd approve the nomination.

"But I do intend to insist that he communicate to us and to this committee and to the nation on how his decisions are being carried out and being made with regards to this national epidemic," Romney said.

Alexander noted that the committee had received 13 letters of support from some 80 organizations representing doctors, patients, researchers, and industry, and that the five most-recent previous FDA commissioners had also written in support of Hahn.

But there has also been pushback from some organizations. The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids is calling on the Senate to postpone a confirmation vote until the Trump administration commits to implementing a plan to remove all flavored e-cigarettes from the market.

"We cannot afford more delays or backtracking in confronting a youth e-cigarette epidemic that is addicting a generation of kids and getting worse every day, with over 5 million kids now using e-cigarettes," said Campaign president Matthew L. Myers in a statement.

Another group, Washington, DC-based Restore Public Trust, has consistently opposed Hahn. "Before the full Senate votes on Dr Hahn, he must state clearly and unequivocally that he will fight back against Big Pharma interests, stand up for patients, and support efforts to reduce the price of prescription drugs in America," Restore Public Trust director Lizzy Price said in a statement.

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