Current Issue

Changing of the guard

There is renewed hope among vapers. With the nomination of Scott Gottlieb to head the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the vapor industry could see a major change in how the regulatory agency views its products. If confirmed by the Senate, Gottlieb, a physician and conservative health policy expert, would be charged with implementing President Trump’s plan to dramatically cut regulations governing food, drugs, cosmetics, dietary supplements and tobacco.

A resident fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute think tank and a partner at a large venture capital fund, Gottlieb could be a boon for manufacturers of electronic nicotine-delivery systems such as e-cigarettes and vapor products.

The risk of vaping is widely believed to be considerably lower than that of smoking. Encouragingly, Gottlieb is likely to bring in his own team to run the various FDA centers, replacing directors such as Mitch Zeller, current head of the Center for Tobacco Products, who has held the ire of the vapor industry for nearly five years.

Not all may be golden with Gottlieb, however. The documentary A Billion Lives confirmed the suspicion, held by many in the business, that much of the anti-vapor rhetoric is nourished by the pharmaceutical business, which views vapor products as a threat to its lucrative nicotine-replacement therapies.

According to the public interest group Public Citizen, “Gottlieb is entangled in an unprecedented web of Big Pharma ties.” He previously served as a deputy commissioner of the FDA under George W. Bush, and since leaving the FDA, Gottlieb has served as a board member or adviser to at least nine drug and device makers. He’s been a consultant to GlaxoSmithKline’s product investment board; a managing director at T.R. Winston & Co. merchant bank, which specializes in health care; and a clinical assistant professor at New York University School of Medicine. He also is a policy adviser to the National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship. (Zeller too had ties to Big Pharma, having worked for pharmaceutical consulting firm Pinney Associates.)

On the other hand, Gottlieb appears sympathetic to the concept of harm reduction.

“Whatever one thinks of cigarette makers, if the industry was earnest about transitioning away from the manufacture of smoked cigarettes and getting into the development of new products that would still satisfy peoples’ taste for nicotine (with hopefully much lower risks), there could be public health virtue,” he wrote in 2013 in Forbes.

Whoever ends up leading the agency should simply follow the science. The FDA must admit that there is no way vapor products are as deadly as cigarettes. Maybe this is something Gottlieb is willing to do. Nobody really knows. But if he does, billions of lives will thank him.