Could FDA Panel Conflict of Interest Endanger Menthol Cigarettes?

Groups charge two FDA advisory panel members have conflicts of interest.

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By Paul Bedard, Washington Whispers

At least four groups are now questioning the credibility of a federal advisory panel created to study tobacco product safety, challenging two members with financial ties to drug firms that make smoking cessation products. At issue: Will the duo push to ban menthol ciggys and favor smokeless products?

The issue hit this week when the Center for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW, filed a complaint against the FDA's tobacco advisory panel for conflicts of interest since they have voting members who consult for pharmaceutical companies that work on nicotine delivery products to quit smoking.

The concern is that two members, Jack Henningfield and Neal Benowitz, have an incentive to favor smoking cessation products because they've advised drug firms on those products.

"This creates an obvious incentive for these members to ban menthol in cigarettes and create a multi-billion dollar market for more nicotine patches and gum potentially paid for by taxpayers," says a critic. The menthol issue the advisory committee is considering is huge: Menthol cigarettes make up about one third of the cigarette market and eliminating them would likely shift users to smokeless products, say industry officials.

The FDA has rejected previous conflict charges and Benowitz told the New York Times this week:  "My involvement with pharmaceutical companies is aimed at reducing the risk of smoking, quitting smoking. The aim of the committee is also to reduce the adverse health consequences of tobacco use."

Besides the left-leaning CREW, the three other opposition groups are the Altria Group, the American Council on Science and Health, and the right-leaning Americans for Limited Government.

Bill Wilson of Americans for Limited Government said that having his and CREW oppose the two appointees on the panel shows how much of a concern there is.

"The odds may be greater of drawing a royal flush in poker than us agreeing on anything but we both know you the FDA shouldn't have a stacked deck when playing with the taxpayers' money," he said. "However, two groups as disparate as ours, Americans for Limited Government, and CREW agree the FDA tobacco panel can't possibly have a legitimate review of the science surrounding menthol's use in cigarettes with multiple conflicts of interest by many of the panelists."

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