No longer a paper tiger Food and Drug Administration: Kessler's sharp focus gave agency new clout.

November 27, 1996

LOVE HIM or hate him -- and there are plenty of people in each category -- Dr. David Kessler departs after six years as head of the Food and Drug Administration with an enviable record of accomplishment. When he arrived at the agency, it was widely regarded as a paper tiger, a bureaucracy weighed down by lethargy and red tape. No one can say that now.

The FDA is a significant player in the important debates about public health. In many cases, such as restrictions on children's access to cigarettes, it has sparked the debate. Public servants who dream about making a difference can take a lesson from Dr. Kessler, who combined his training in medicine, law and business with an ability to focus the energies of a sprawling agency and bring about concrete improvements in public health.

Early on he surprised food manufacturers by enforcing labeling regulations. He seized cases of orange juice labeled as "fresh" even though it was made from concentrate. He then cracked down on vegetable oil manufacturers who were using a "no cholesterol" label to suggest the product was a healthy choice despite the fact that it was 100 percent fat.

Many critics argue that he went too far in responding to complaints that breast implants were causing unhealthy side effects in women. Despite conflicting scientific evidence he took these products off the market, with exceptions for reconstructive surgeries on cancer patients.

Dr. Kessler has been the kind of commissioner critics love to hate -- bold, aggressive and willing to challenge the status quo. That is rare in public servants, especially those expected to lead government agencies that can put them in conflict with powerful interests, such as food manufacturers, pharmaceutical companies or even the tobacco industry.

But the reforms he brought about -- from better food labels to faster approval of new drugs -- have shown that it doesn't always take an act of Congress to spur change in a bureaucracy. Add to those accomplishments the fact that he has stirred a serious reconsideration of government policies toward tobacco and it seems clear the Kessler years at the FDA will stand as testament that it is possible for a determined official to make a significant difference in public health.

Pub Date: 11/27/96

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