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Bad News for E-Cigs: Pharmaceutical Consultant to Head FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products

Despite their increasing popularity, the future doesn’t look too bright for electronic cigarettes. According to the media, the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products will soon be headed by Mitch Zeller, currently an executive at a firm that does consulting work for pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline and a firm opposer of alternative cessation products like snus or e-cigarettes.

The FDA’s decision on analog alternatives like electronic cigarettes has been a long time coming, and the agency announced it might finally announce its decision in 2013. Although the current head of the Center for Tobacco Products, Dr. Lawrence Deyton, hasn’t exactly been a great supporter of alternative nicotine-delivery products, at least his position didn’t create a conflict of interests. In Zeller’s case however, the situation is much more complicated. Although no one would ever dare question his qualifications for the job, as he has been actively involved in the tobacco control movement for over two decades, but his current executive position at Pinney Associates, a pharmaceutical consulting firm that works with GlaxoSMithKline cannot be overlooked. Zeller himself admitted he provides consulting services to the pharmaceuticals giant “on issues related to tobacco dependence treatment.”

According to Dr Michael Siegel, a Professor in the Department of Community Health Sciences, Boston University School of Public Health, Zeller’s appointment as head of the Center for Tobacco Products is synonymous with inviting GlaxoSmithKline to come in and issue its own regulations and govern its competitors. Of course, Zeller will be leaving Pinney Associates to be able to work for the FDA, but that’s hardly enough to solve the evident conflict of interests. As stated above, Mitch Zeller’s qualifications and experience in tobacco control are unquestionable, but surely the FDA must have known his nomination would be viewed as highly controversial.

His position at the forefront of the battle against tobacco may be one of the main reasons for his appointment as head of the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products, but his relation to the makers of Nicorette gum and NicoDerm patches, and the top seller of nicotine replacement therapy products unfortunately casts a shadow over the objectivity of the decision. Lobbyists and consultants have been involved in scientific organisations like the FDA for far too long, and it seems the trend is still going strong, despite President Obama’s promise to take politics out of science.

And if Zeller’s experience as consultant for GlaxoSmithKline wasn’t bad enough news for the future of electronic cigarettes, the future head of the FDA’s agency hasn’t only been an adversary of the tobacco industry, but also a firm opposer of the consideration of alternative cessation products, like e-cigarettes. “To clarify, the newly appointed head of the CTP, one of whose main missions should be to objectively evaluate methods for helping smokers quit most effectively, has been in the business of promoting FDA-approved traditional NRT [nicotine replacement therapy] products, while (not surprisingly) he has been in the forefront of opposing consideration of alternative cessation products such as snus and e-cigarettes,” said Dr. Gilbert Ross of the American Council on Science and Health. He added that the FDA should have chosen someone with less conflict of interests problems.

The new tobacco directive shows the European Union plans to ban electronic cigarettes, and it seems things are taking a turn for the worst in the US as well. As much as I’d like to believe the FDA’s decision regarding e-cigarettes will be an objective one, I can’t help but be pessimistic about its ruling, especially after hearing about Zeller’s appointment.

Source: Winston-Salem Journal

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