Dan Vergano, Grid News, August 3, 2022
The departure of the head of the Food and Drug Administration’s tobacco science office for a job in the tobacco industry shines a new spotlight on a long-running problem: the “revolving door” between government regulators and the industries they police.
Matt Holman, whose work at the FDA influenced decisions around the safety of products such as e-cigarettes, left the agency Tuesday for a job with Philip Morris International, whose products — sold overseas — include Marlboro cigarettes and the electronic tobacco-delivery system IQOS.
Agency watchdogs say where there is smoke, there’s an ethics fire. They’ve warned of revolving-door concerns — only well-documented for high-level positions and for the Defense Department — for decades. But there is little hard data on just how big the problem is. A Grid analysis of LinkedIn profile data suggests that at least 2,700 ex-FDA employees now work for the pharmaceutical industry. Another 1,100 current FDA employees have moved the other way, from industry to the agency, according to the profile information.
Former FDA employees are found throughout many other industries regulated by the agency as well: Around 1,200 now work in the biotechnology industry, and more than 600 work in the medical devices industry. Some of the most high-profile examples include Trump FDA chief Scott Gottlieb, on the board of directors of Pfizer weeks after he left the job, as well as the current commissioner, Robert Califf, who went from heading FDA during the Obama administration to Alphabet Inc.’s health subsidiaries, and then back to heading the agency this year. Califf pledged not to work for a pharmaceutical or medical device firm for four years after leaving his current post to win the Senate votes he needed for his confirmation.
In a July 26 memo announcing Holman’s departure, newly installed FDA Center for Tobacco Products Director Brian King said that Holman had recused himself from tobacco-related regulatory decision-making and been on leave before July. “I’m grateful to Matt for his contributions to the Center and unwavering commitment to you all over the years,” said King.
The numbers are both interesting and not surprising, said Michael Carome of Public Citizen, a public health watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. The count likely underestimates the number of agency employees who have jumped to the industries they once regulated, he added, and obviously doesn’t include industry figures who have moved to the agency, where they briefly stay before returning to their home industry, another area of concern for ethics experts.
“Unfortunately, when you see somebody go from a regulating agency to the regulated industry, the public is naturally going to react like it’s a betrayal, because it does call into question your commitment to the mission of protecting the public,” said government ethics expert Walter Shaub of the Project on Government Oversight. While regulated companies may honestly want the expertise of the people charged with regulating them, said Shaub, “the other thing is that they want to know the inside workings of the FDA.”
“They want to, or one might suspect they want to, create an atmosphere in which employees at FDA know that there’s a lucrative job waiting for them, potentially, as long as they don’t really upset the regulated industry, right? I just think that’s human nature,” he added.
Regarding Holman, Philip Morris International said the former FDA official “is committed to helping existing adult smokers access scientifically substantiated smoke-free alternatives while protecting youth,” in a statement sent to Grid.
Holman is barred from communicating with the FDA about Philip Morris for a year, under ethics rules, and about any matter he was personally involved with at the agency for life. In comments to the New York Times, Holman defended his move, noting that he consulted with agency ethics lawyers and viewed Philip Morris International as moving away from cigarettes to less harmful tobacco products, saying he could have jumped to the industry much earlier after 20 years at the FDA if that had been his goal. (He has not yet responded to a request for comment from Grid.)
However, numerous regulatory affairs or drug development employees at FDA-regulated pharmaceutical companies, including Merck, Abbott and Johnson & Johnson, worked at the FDA for more than a decade prior to moving to the industry, according to the LinkedIn data. “The idea that they recuse themselves is really BS, because they are telling the companies how to manipulate the system behind the scenes,” said Diana Zuckerman, president of the National Center for Health Research, herself a former Department of Health and Human Services employee.
Holman’s departure comes as the Biden administration has turned up the heat on the tobacco industry, planning to require slashing nicotine in cigarettes to minimally addictive levels, and moving to prohibit menthol cigarettes. A 2016 law has led to a crackdown on e-cigarettes, threatening small vaping shops and leading to a lawsuit with Juul after the agency last month ordered the e-cigarette maker to halt sales, despite allowing tobacco giant RJR to sell its own e-cigarettes. The agency’s tobacco and food safety programs are now under external review after the recent infant formula shortage and a surge in teens vaping nicotine since 2017.
“There have been a lot of strange decisions coming out of that office,” said Stanton Glantz, founding director of the UCSF Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education, a longtime tobacco industry critic, referring to the Center for Tobacco Products.
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