Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern


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Former head of FDA discusses tobacco wars

David Kessler said Monday that he has wanted to deregulate the tobacco industry for about 10 years.

Now, thanks to the efforts of Kessler, former head of the Food and Drug Administration, so do the tobacco companies.

“There is no question that I am a little more antsy now that Philip Morris wants it regulated,” Kessler told 60 people Monday afternoon in Fisk Hall as part of Medill’s Crain Lecture Series. “The one thing (tobacco companies) care about most is social acceptability.”

Kessler headed the FDA from 1990 to 1997. He entered this position focusing on food regulation by requiring food manufacturers to put nutritional labeling on packages. But the bulk of his work focused on the tobacco industry.

“Originally it was a job,” Kessler said after his speech. “Then we started asking questions (about tobacco) and one thing led to another.”

In his new book, “Question of Intent,” Kessler discusses his attempts to deregulate the tobacco industry. During Monday’s presentation, Kessler detailed his deregulation efforts by showing slides, statistics and video clips that illustrate his evidence-gathering process.

“(Smoking) is the number one preventable cause of death in the United States,” Kessler said. “It kills more people than AIDS, suicides, homicides and illegal accidents combined. Key officials knew nicotine was a drug and said it well before the FDA did.”

Kessler said tobacco officials focused on giving adults the freedom to smoke and meanwhile did not try to regulate nicotine.

“This is the definition of a man-made epidemic,” he said. “You can argue that the first cigarette is a choice, but what happens to the choice argument when you realize it is addictive?”

Throughout his speech, Kessler employed an interactive approach, allowing the audience to role-play and tackle questions of how to deregulate the tobacco industry. His opening statement served to ignite discussion: “Where is the evidence of a company’s intent?”

During the presentation, Medill Dean Ken Bode assumed the role of counsel for the Philip Morris Company and Kessler resumed his role as FDA leader.

At one point Kessler asked Bode if he, as a tobacco lawyer, thought nicotine was addictive.

We have no scientific evidence of that, Bode responded, drawing laughter from the audience.

Kessler, who is now dean of the Yale University School of Medicine, ended his speech by encouraging the audience not to be afraid to face daunting issues.

“Remember that sometimes, just sometimes, you can take on issues that seem next to impossible,” he said.

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Former head of FDA discusses tobacco wars