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US Senate confirms cancer doctor Stephen Hahn as US FDA commissioner

The U.S. Senate has confirmed cancer doctor Stephen Hahn to be the 24th commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, an agency that oversees products that account for about one-fifth of the nation's economy.

The Senate cleared Hahn's nomination Dec. 12 in a 72 to 18 vote.

SNL ImageDr. Stephen Hahn
Source: MD Anderson Cancer Center

Hahn is expected to be quickly sworn in to take the helm of the FDA, where he will oversee nearly 18,000 employees and regulate 77% of the nation's food supply, more than 20,000 prescription medicines, 6,500 medical devices, 1,600 animal drugs and 85,000 tobacco products, not including e-liquids.

The cancer doctor and oncology radiologist is leaving behind his more than $1.3 million-a-year job as the chief medical executive at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. The FDA post pays about $155,000 annually.

He has no previous regulatory experience.

President Donald Trump nominated Hahn on Nov. 1 — choosing him over Ned Sharpless, director of the U.S. National Cancer Institute, who filled in temporarily as acting commissioner after Scott Gottlieb resigned in March less than two years into the job.

Brett Giroir, the assistant secretary for health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, has been serving in an acting capacity as commissioner pending Hahn's confirmation.

Hahn gained the strong backing of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on Dec. 3 in an 18-to-5 vote, with five Democrats among the senators who gave the nominee a thumb's up.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., chairman of the committee, said he had received 13 letters of support for Hahn, representing nearly 80 organizations.

The past five FDA commissioners initially called on Trump to keep Sharpless for the job, but later said they supported Hahn.

Vaping pressure

The new FDA leader is under pressure from Republicans and Democrats to take action to curb the youth vaping epidemic — a concern that dominated his Nov. 20 confirmation hearing.

Trump had vowed in September to clear the U.S. market of non-tobacco-flavored e-cigarettes that have not undergone FDA review, but later backed away from that pledge.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the ranking member on the Senate health committee, said Hahn's unwillingness to fully commit to removing those products from the market was a "big red flag" that he may not stand up to the White House and e-cigarette industry lobbyists.

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, said Hahn should consider resigning if he takes any direction from the White House that is "contrary to his view as a professional, as a scientist and as a doctor."

At his November confirmation hearing, Hahn pledged "to use science, data and the law" in his decision-making.

Importation

A number of senators at that hearing brought up the high costs of medicines in the U.S.

While Hahn said he often had seen firsthand the "financial toxicity" his patients experienced from high drug prices, he declined to say if he supported Trump's pending importation proposal — a program the FDA would be charged with implementing and overseeing.

The idea involves pilot projects run by states, wholesalers and pharmacists for importing medicines from Canada and a complicated process that would let manufacturers sell products intended for foreign markets in the U.S.

The drug industry, Canada and others, including most Republicans on Capitol Hill, have objected to importing prescription medicines into the U.S.

HHS Secretary Alex Azar had previously called drug importation a "gimmick," but later said the administration would find a safe way to make it work.

In 2016, Hahn's predecessor, Gottlieb, said importing medicines from outside the U.S. would provide American consumers "little relief" from high drug costs and criticized then-candidate Trump as promoting an "aged concept."

In May, Gottlieb said he remained concerned about importation.