FDA commissioner hints at tobacco regulation

May 27, 1994|By Jonathan Bor | Jonathan Bor,Sun Staff Writer

Dr. David Kessler, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, told 104 graduates of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine yesterday that his agency faces a rare opportunity to make inroads into the rising number of smoking-related deaths.

Although he fell short of declaring whether he will attempt to regulate tobacco as a drug, he strongly implied that he savors the chance to do so.

"We cannot passively cede to the tobacco industry the right to determine the future health of so many of our children," said Dr. Kessler, the keynote speaker during commencement exercises.

"The Food and Drug Administration today embarks on one of the most important and challenging public health inquiries in history. Rarely has the regulatory option offered such potential to affect the public health. We cannot accept the inevitability of yet another generation of young people becoming addicted to cigarettes."

Dr. Kessler, who completed a pediatric residency at Hopkins in 1982, spoke before a graduating class of 36 women and 68 men. The graduation was held in Towson at Goucher College's Kraushaar Auditorium.

In February, Dr. Kessler kindled a wide-ranging national debate over tobacco when he cited accumulating evidence that the tobacco industry is keeping Americans hooked on cigarettes by manipulating their nicotine content. The FDA, he said, might decide to regulate tobacco as a drug -- possibly ordering the removal of tobacco products whose nicotine levels are high enough to cause or satisfy addiction.

Recently, a congressional committee has examined evidence that tobacco companies long ago suppressed research by its own scientists that cigarettes are addictive and injurious to health. Tobacco officials have staunchly denied that their companies raise nicotine levels, and said they remain unconvinced that smoking causes cancer, heart disease or other fatal illnesses.

Yesterday, Dr. Kessler said the nation faces a crossroads in public health.

"When the annual worldwide death toll from tobacco is expected to more than triple in the next two or three decades from 3 million to 10 million deaths a year, no one can breathe easy. We have known the dangers of smoking for more than 30 years.

"But only recently has the picture begun to emerge of the decisions and the research that has been occurring inside the tobacco industry about the hazards of cigarettes. It is time for all of us to begin to start asking the tough questions."

Dr. Kessler also urged the graduates to regard medicine as a "calling" rather than a profession, to place their patients' well-being over financial reward and to find ways to attack the root causes of disease. He said the nation faces an exciting opportunity to transform health care by providing coverage to all.

"Will you be a healer or simply a good diagnostician? Will you be a physician-citizen or merely a member of the medical guild? Do you have a calling or merely a profession?"

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