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Former FDA chief David Kessler discusses tobacco battle in book
(CNN) -- The Food and Drug Administration's ongoing battle with the tobacco companies led a world that has "changed forever," former FDA Commissioner David Kessler told CNN.
Kessler, who headed the agency from 1990 to 1997, discussed the tobacco battle, part of his new book, "A Question of Intent" (PublicAffairs), in an interview on "Early Edition."
"It really was a detective story. We had an incredible team at FDA," recalled Kessler of the agency's determination to probe the tobacco companies. "One was a former Secret Service/CIA agent; one was a polygraph expert; one was an investigative journalist; one had actually worked for a tobacco company as a public relations expert. And we went where no one else had gone. We went to investigate the tobacco companies."
The FDA's investigation bore fruit in the late 1990s when tobacco industry executives admitted the addictive qualities of nicotine, and lawsuits filed by state attorneys general resulted in a settlement of billions of dollars. Steven Parrish, a Philip Morris vice president, has even come out in favor of federal regulation of the tobacco industry.
Though Kessler's own efforts to have tobacco regulated were rejected by Congress, he's pleased with the overall result.
"(The tobacco companies) now admit that nicotine is addictive; that smoking causes cancer; and I give Mr. Parrish a good deal of credit for coming out and favoring regulation," he told CNN anchor Carol Lin.
'It deals with matters of life and death'
Kessler, now Dean of the Yale University School of Medicine, is also proud of turning the FDA around. When he arrived at the agency in 1990, it was reeling from attacks from both the left and right. In Kessler's words, it "was a slow-moving target that bleeds profusely when hit."
"It had been a rough previous 10 years. It was a deregulatory period," Kessler recalled. "I did come in at a low point."
Why join, then?
"FDA is the most important consumer protection agency in the world," Kessler said. "It regulates 25 cents on every dollar. It really deals with matters of life and death. I just thought I could make a difference."
Kessler gained an early victories was in requiring food manufacturers to put nutritional labeling on packaging. One of his opponents was, surprisingly, his own Department of Agriculture.
"They didn't want full disclosure," Kessler said.
But Kessler shrewdly remembered a tray-liner he had seen while visiting McDonald's -- a piece of paper with labeling very similar to what FDA was proposing. When the Department of Agriculture took the matter to President Bush, Kessler pulled out the tray-liner and said, "If it's good enough for McDonald's, it should be good enough for the Department of Agriculture."
He won his case.
Dismantling Big Tobacco
In the years since he's left the FDA, Kessler has continued to be an outspoken opponent of the tobacco industry. "If public health is to be the centerpiece of tobacco control -- if our goal is to halt this manmade epidemic -- the tobacco industry, as currently configured, needs to be dismantled," he writes in "A Question of Intent."
He acknowledges that probably won't happen, but pointed out to Lin that nicotine addiction shouldn't be a partisan topic.
"Nicotine is an addictive drug. It's the number-one preventable cause of death. It doesn't have to be a Republican or Democratic issue," he said.
Eventually, Kessler believes, cigarettes should not only be regulated, but sold in plain brown wrappers with only a brand name and warning label -- and that all sales and revenues should go to pay off liability claims.
"Why should anyone profit from the sale of an addictive drug that kills so many people?" he asked.
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