Congress

FDA nominee faces bipartisan grilling on Trump's vaping plan

Stephen Hahn pressed on whether he would work to curb spike in youth vapers

Stephen Hahn, nominee to be commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, testifies during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on Wednesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Medical executive Stephen Hahn faced a bipartisan grilling in his nomination hearing Wednesday about whether he would, if confirmed to lead the Food and Drug Administration, challenge the president to release a promised tobacco flavor ban.

Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee ranking member Patty Murray, D-Wash., pressed Hahn on whether he would “stand up” to the White House in order to curb a sharp spike in young people's exposure to nicotine through the growing vaping industry, including the rise of Juul Labs Inc. 

“I have seen the ravages of tobacco related cancers. … I do not want to see another generation become addicted,” said Hahn. “I believe we need to take aggressive steps.”

Hahn, chief medical executive of University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, was nominated earlier this month by President Donald Trump to be the next FDA commissioner.

He replied to Murray that he has not been included in conversations with the administration over the flavor ban, and said he might not have all of the same data as the administration. 

“I understand the final compliance is under review at the White House, and I’m not privy to those conversations,” Hahn said. 

Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., praised Hahn’s background as an oncologist and executive. Alexander defended him by saying, “I don’t expect you to state the position of an administration of which you are not yet a part.”

Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., pushed back, asking if Hahn is aware of any data “in the other direction” supporting the idea that flavored tobacco products do not fuel youth nicotine addiction. 

Hahn replied he was not. 

Smith also asked Hahn whether he would leverage the authority of the FDA commissioner to finalize the rule.

“We can look into that, but I’m pretty sure you would have the authority,” she said. 

Hahn did not answer the question directly. 

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, expressed concern that Big Tobacco companies would quash any action on the issue, saying vaping represents a "test case" of whether Hahn will prioritize public health over the political influence of corporations. 

“For me, vaping is a canary in the coal mine,” Romney said. 

Hahn leaned on his experience as a lung cancer clinician and the Hippocratic Oath doctors take to protect patients as he said that he would prioritize people over politics in the position. 

“This is a place where sometimes an oath of that nature takes a backseat,” Romney said, noting the influence of political donations from industry.  

Hahn repeatedly stressed that he would follow the guidance of “data, science, and the rule of law” in issuing policy, a statement he made so often that it provoked a frustrated response from Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala.

After Jones praised Hahn, he said the nominee’s responses on vaping betrayed “prep from handlers,” and that he was disappointed. 

“The administration has prepped you in a way to bob and weave on this issue. And that’s not you,” Jones said, who submitted a question to the record about Hahn’s personal opinion on what should be done to convince millions of children not to use e-cigarettes. 

Five former FDA commissioners — including the most recent, Scott Gottlieb — wrote in a letter to the committee this week that they support Hahn’s confirmation.  

The senators asked Hahn whether he would uphold what he described as FDA’s “gold standard for protecting the public health,” and how he would address some of the agency’s major recent issues. Those included FDA's approval of opioid drugs, unregulated CBD products, and the agency’s limited jurisdiction over skyrocketing drug prices. 

Two senators on the committee vying for the Democratic presidential nomination, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, were not present ahead of a televised debate in Atlanta. 

The committee received all of the qualifying paperwork from Hahn on Nov. 12, and senators have been meeting with him individually in the intervening days. The committee will vote on Hahn's confirmation on Dec. 3.

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