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U.S. Senate approves von Eschenbach to head FDA

Some guys in government service wait until they are actually in office to be the subject of controversy. Andrew von Eschenbach got a head start.

Finally confirmed as the Food and Drug Administration's commissioner by the U.S. Senate in early December, von Eschenbach had been nominated by President Bush for the post in March, after having served as acting commissioner for about six months before that. But he brings to the job a range of baggage, including the following:

*When first nominated, von Eschenbach was in charge of the government's National Cancer Institute, and for a while held both that job and that of acting commissioner of the FDA. Some Democrats pointed out the potential conflict of interest of running a group that researches cancer drugs as well as one that approves them for sale. He eventually took a leave from his NCI duties.

*Some senators opposed von Eschenbach's confirmation as commissioner because they said the FDA had not met its commitment to make a decision on whether to allow over-the-counter sales of Plan B, the emergency contraceptive. (Perhaps just to pile on, another senator said he'd block a vote on von Eschenbach's appointment because the nominee didn't oppose Plan B enough.)

*Most recently, Republican senators didn't want to confirm von Eschenbach because they said the FDA was refusing to cooperate with a Senate investigation of its handling of an antibiotic, said one, and because he didn't like how the FDA prohibited drug imports, said another. They got outvoted, and von Eschenbach was confirmed.

Now, von Eschenbach is officially in as FDA commissioner, so he can take a deep breath, relax, and settle into a quiet life managing the world's most important consumer protection agency, with its controversial oversight of drug safety, questionable decision-making in drug approvals, a busy time in the food safety arena, inadequate budget, and general malaise resulting from the lack of a permanent leader for more than a year. We wish him all the best, because, seriously, making the FDA strong and fair is important to the regulated industries and the public. In fact, having a confirmed, permanent commissioner who can provide strong leadership should help that happen.

- By Eric Greenberg, Attorney-at-Law
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