Globe Editorial

FDA lax on conflicts of interest

March 8, 2010

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THE FOOD and Drug Administration has done far too little to avoid conflicts of interest among those who serve on its scientific panels and advisory boards. The latest example came last Monday, when the agency appointed to a tobacco advisory committee two scientists who have financial ties to companies that sell smoking cessation products.

One of the scientists, Jack Henningfield, makes most of his income from a consulting company that has GlaxoSmithKline, which makes Nicorette gum, as a client, according to a Wall Street Journal report. The other, Neil L. Benowitz, formerly worked as a consultant for GlaxoSmithKline and still consults for Pfizer, which makes the quit-smoking drug Chantix.

It could be worse. The pair of scientists could have financial ties to cigarette makers - which would violate federal law since the two will vote on recommendations for how to regulate the tobacco industry. But no matter how honorable the individuals involved, there’s a clear danger when those who decide whether menthol cigarettes should be banned and whether smokeless tobacco products are safe also stand to profit from the sale of products that help people quit smoking.

It’s encouraging that the FDA asked the scientists to disclose their financial ties to the drug companies. The reason for their appointment is the same scientific expertise they also offer to the pharmaceutical industry. But the agency must justify why the nine voting members of the committee could not be selected from the many scientists who do not have such ties.

If the two scientists are indeed the best that can serve the committee, they should not be allowed to vote on whether particular tobacco products can come to market unless they agree not to receive profits related to smoking-cessation aids. In addition, the FDA, which promised to screen all panel members for conflicts of interest before each meeting, should make the criteria and results of those screenings public while the panel meets and before any of its recommendations become national policy.

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