The Senate on Thursday confirmed Dr. Stephen Hahn to lead the Food and Drug Administration despite concerns about how he will confront the growing problem of underage vaping.
Hahn, a cancer specialist and hospital executive, won confirmation to the role of FDA commissioner with a vote of 72-18. The move comes as key decisions about regulating electronic cigarettes, including how to keep them away from teenagers, remain unresolved.
More than three months ago President Donald Trump and his top health officials said they would soon sweep virtually all flavored e-cigarettes from the market because of their appeal to children and teens. But that effort has stalled after vaping lobbyists pushed back and White House advisers told Trump the ban could cost him votes with adults who vape.
In his confirmation hearing last month, Hahn repeatedly sidestepped questions about the fate of the flavor ban. When lawmakers tried to pin down his preferred approach to regulating vaping, Hahn said only that he would follow the “science and evidence.”
Still, he won the backing of several key vaping critics in the Senate, including Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin, who said he hoped Hahn would use his influence to push the Trump administration to crack down on the industry.
“Dr. Hahn said to me he doesn't want to be known in history as the head of the FDA who saw this epidemic grow dramatically," said Durbin, speaking on the Senate floor Wednesday. Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, supports legislation that would place new taxes on e-cigarettes and restrict flavors with the aim of discouraging underage use.
Anti-vaping groups and health experts argue that flavors like fruit, mint, menthol and others attract underage teens. But vaping proponents say flavors can help adult smokers switch to vaping from cigarettes, which cause cancer, lung disease, stroke and other deadly diseases.
Underage vaping has reached what health officials call epidemic levels. In the latest government survey, 1 in 4 high school students reported using e-cigarettes in the previous month, despite federal law banning sales to those under 18. More than a third of U.S. states have already raised their sales age for e-cigarettes and other tobacco products to 21.
E-cigarettes typically heat a solution that contains nicotine, which makes cigarettes and e-cigarettes addictive. They are generally considered less harmful than paper-and-tobacco cigarettes, though there is little research on their long-term health effects.
Hahn, 59, will succeed Dr. Scott Gottlieb, who left the federal agency in April.
Gottlieb bucked expectations early in his tenure by announcing an unprecedented effort to curb smoking. Under the plan outlined in July 2017, the FDA would use its authority to cut nicotine in cigarettes to non-addictive levels, encouraging smokers to quit or switch to less harmful products, such as e-cigarettes.
The proposal for cutting nicotine was targeted for release in October this year, according to the agency's regulatory agenda. But it didn't appear and was dropped last month from the FDA's updated list of regulatory priorities. An FDA spokeswoman said the agency is continuing to review the policy.
But anti-tobacco advocates worry the Trump administration is backing away from its earlier commitment to making cigarettes less addictive.
The FDA regulates a broad array of consumer goods and medicine — everything from new drugs and medical devices to packaged food, nutrition labeling, tobacco and cosmetics.
As FDA commissioner, Hahn will face a raft of other pressing health issues, including dealing with the prescription opioid epidemic, safety problems with imported drugs and the regulation of CBD, a marijuana derivative that has become a trendy food additive.
Hahn, who specializes in treating lung cancer, most recently worked as the top medical executive at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.