Trump's pick to lead the FDA wants 'aggressive action' on e-cigarette flavors

It's unclear whether Dr. Stephen Hahn would ultimately push for a flavor ban.
Image: Stephen Hahn, nominee to be the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, during his confirmation hearing before a Senate committee on Nov. 20, 2019.
Dr. Stephen Hahn, nominee to be the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, during his confirmation hearing before a Senate committee Nov. 20, 2019.Bill Clark / CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images

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By Erika Edwards

President Donald Trump's nominee to be the next head of the Food and Drug Administration told a group of senators Wednesday that he supports "aggressive action" to address the nation's teen vaping epidemic.

But Dr. Stephen Hahn stopped short of explicitly saying flavored e-cigarettes should be banned. Instead, Hahn repeatedly told the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee that he will rely on "science and data" in making decisions intended to protect the next generation from nicotine addiction.

"I think this is an important, urgent crisis in this country," Hahn said. "We do not want to see another generation of Americans addicted to tobacco and nicotine, and I believe we need to take aggressive action to stop it."

Hahn currently serves as chief medical executive at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, a highly respected oncology institution. He specializes in lung cancer, and told the committee he's "seen the ravages of tobacco-related" diseases firsthand.

Senators on both sides of the aisle pushed the physician on whether he would be able to stand up to both tobacco lobbyists and a president who may disagree with Hahn on the subject of vaping.

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In September, Trump announced he would ban all e-cigarette flavors in an effort to curb skyrocketing teen vaping rates. So far, he has declined to act on that promise.

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, brought up the "enormous political pressure" Hahn would face if confirmed. "Is there anything keeping you from making the decision to ban these flavored products?" Romney asked.

"I will use science and data to guide the decisions. I won’t back away from that. I’m a father, soon to be a grandfather. And I take that very seriously," Hahn answered.

He added that he has not discussed a potential flavor ban with Trump. The FDA has authority over tobacco products, including electronic cigarettes.

"Are you willing to say to the president what you believe the science and data is on banning this, or will you just take what the president tells you to do and implement it?" Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., asked.

"Throughout my career, using data and science and the law, I've had conversations with people about what I think is best," Hahn said. "And I do look forward and will have those conversations."

Overall, Hahn appeared to have wide bipartisan support during the hearing. He could be confirmed by the end of this year.

If that happens, he will enter the position amid a national outbreak of severe and deadly lung diseases linked to vaping. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported 2,172 cases.

And at least 45 people have died. Wednesday, health officials in New York announced that a man in his 30s had died from the illness called EVALI, short for e-cigarette, or vaping, associated lung injury.

In a statement, the New York Department of Health said it's "continuing its robust investigation into the cause of these illnesses, but in the meantime our message on vaping remains unchanged: if you don't know what you're smoking, don't smoke it."

Also in the Senate hearing Wednesday, Hahn expressed his commitment to work with Congress on a wide variety of public health topics: safety of generic drugs, drug shortages, availability of affordable insulin, drug pricing, effective pain management and appropriate opioid usage.

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