FDA's revolving door

November 27, 2005

If practice makes perfect, the Food and Drug Administration may finally be on its way to regaining confidence in its ability to protect public safety.

The conflict-ridden agency - both shill for the pharmaceutical industry and stooge for White House political shop - can hardly afford any more steps backward.

In naming veteran FDA official Kathleen Uhl to head the office of women's health, the Bush administration has at least met what would seem to be the minimum requirements for the post: She is a woman and a physician. That's an improvement on the last candidate, a male veterinarian whose appointment so outraged women's groups it was withdrawn almost immediately.

Yet the revolving door nature of the FDA, which keeps losing its top officials and where Acting Commissioner Andrew C. von Eschenbach is moonlighting from his day job as director of the National Cancer Institute, makes image rehabilitation difficult.

Dr. Uhl needs a full-time commissioner to help her restore the integrity of an agency recently shown to be even more subject to outside pressure than cynics suspected.

This influence was glaringly exposed in the FDA's handling of the so-called "morning-after pill," when officials blocked over-the-counter sales of the emergency contraceptive to minors under 17 - a move applauded by conservatives who fear easy access will encourage sexual activity among teens.

An investigation by the General Accountability Office revealed that political appointees within the agency moved to block approval long before a scientific analysis was complete. A review committee's recommendation that teens should not be required to get a prescription for the pills languished for a year before it was shelved indefinitely.

That stonewall prompted the previous director of women's health to resign in protest in September. Shortly after, FDA commissioner Lester Crawford, who won Senate confirmation by promising action on the morning-after pill, reneged and quit abruptly, too.

And all this occurred less than a year after a whistleblower told Congress that FDA watchdogs are too cozy with makers of the drugs they test. Science should never be manipulated for politics, but nowhere is that practice more dangerous than in the safety review of medicine.

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