Gardiner Harris paints a very one-sided picture of an FDA desiring to use its regulatory power and a White House dedicated to constraining them. When you look at the results, however, either some FDA officials are trying to tell their side of the story, or the article is dead-on about the White House’s love affair with deregulation.
Nancy-Ann DeParle, the whip-smart and sometimes caustic White House deputy chief of staff, picked up The Wall Street Journal one summer day in 2010 and got an unwelcome shock. The Food and Drug Administration was proposing as part of the new health care law to require that movie theaters post calorie counts for popcorn — and this was the first she had heard of it.
In the F.D.A.’s view, the law called for moviegoers to know that many a buttery bucket of popcorn had more calories than two Big Macs, but Ms. DeParle, President Obama’s chief health adviser, thought the requirement was unnecessary and would probably be lampooned on Fox News as an especially silly example of the government intrusions that conservatives often mocked as the nanny state.
Dr. Margaret A. Hamburg, the F.D.A. commissioner appointed by Mr. Obama, soon heard about the White House’s displeasure and called Ms. DeParle at home one evening, people with knowledge of the call confirmed. The women had a decidedly chilly conversation. Within days, the F.D.A., an agency charged with protecting public health, backed down and dropped the notion of calorie counts for foods served in movie theaters and on airplanes.
And there’s plenty more of this conflict described here. The FDA wanted to regulate sunscreen by banning use of the name for ineffective products. The White House just wanted them listed as ineffective. The FDA wanted over-the-counter sales of the morning-after pill. The White House wanted sales restricted behind the counter.
And the White House ends up winning all these fights. They see the FDA as “hopelessly naïve” do-gooders who don’t understand the implications of their actions. This of course reflects on them as the hopelessly naïve ones, thinking that Republicans will somehow stop their attacks if they never use the power vested in them by the Constitution. The obsession with message and image has real consequences for policy.
The article explains how the Bush Administration first tampered with the FDA’s independence, and that the White House under Obama has really done the same thing, if for different reasons. The Bush Administration just didn’t want the regulations. The Obama Administration just didn’t want the risk associated with the regulations. But the impact is exactly the same; it doesn’t matter what’s in the heart of those stopping the regulations. “Employees here waited eight long years for deliverance that didn’t come,” said one top FDA official.
Reading over this report, you get the impression that the biggest consumers of Glenn Beck in the 2009-2010 period were White House staffers. And policies were set so as to not rouse him. As a result, movie theater popcorn has no calorie count associated with it. Sunscreens that offer no protection from skin cancer are still called sunscreens. Primatene Mist is still on the market despite being warned by the FDA for years to remove the CFCs from their asthma inhalers. Plan B One-Step cannot be sold to younger women without a prescription.
This is about big money and lobbying, sure, but also a philosophy that comes from Cass Sunstein, a light-touch “nudge” theory of regulation that clashes with the FDA’s main mission to protect the public.
The article closes with this from Susan Wood. I will also:
Susan Wood, a former head of the office of women’s health at the F.D.A., had resigned in 2005 to protest the Bush administration’s repeated refusal to make emergency contraceptives available without a prescription. In 2009, the White House invited Dr. Wood to attend a ceremony during which Mr. Obama signed a presidential memorandum pledging to restore scientific integrity to government decision-making and to listen to scientists “even when it’s inconvenient — especially when it’s inconvenient.”
Dr. Wood said that she feels Mr. Obama broke that promise and fears future administrations will overrule the F.D.A. in other such controversial areas.
“But I’m an optimist,” she added, “and hope that the president will find a way to stand by his promise.”
Needless to say, I differ with her last quote.