WASHINGTON -- Retiring Representative Billy Tauzin, who led the House committee that regulates drug makers, will become head of the industry's top lobbying group next month.
Tauzin said his most important challenge will be improving the image of drug companies, which has been damaged by soaring prescription drug costs and high-profile safety issues with the arthritis medication Vioxx and other medicines.
"They've got to reearn the trust and confidence of the American public," Tauzin, Republican of Louisiana, said in an interview yesterday, shortly after the announcement of his hiring as president of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.
Tauzin, 61, is leaving Congress after 24 years, including three years as chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. He was a Democrat until 1995, shortly after Republicans won control of the House of Representatives.
His son, Billy Tauzin III, sought to replace him in the House, but was narrowly defeated by Democrat Charles Melancon.
Among the issues Tauzin will face in his new role is the legalization of imports of cheaper medicines from Canada and elsewhere. Drug makers oppose legalizing imports, and Tauzin voted against it in the House last year.
He said the topic will persist as long as drug costs remain so high, especially for the uninsured. "The issue of access and affordability is the root cause of the importation issue," Tauzin said.
Public Citizen and Common Cause, two watchdog groups, criticized Tauzin for using his public service for his personal benefit. They pointed to his deep involvement in developing legislation last year for Medicare prescription drugs. Opponents said the law provides billions of dollars to the pharmaceutical industry while failing to slow increases in drug prices.
"We think that it stinks," Common Cause spokeswoman Mary Boyle said. "Whose interests did he have at heart, those of the American people or his future employer?"
The complaints first arose earlier this year when Tauzin disclosed he had been talking with PhRMA about a post-Congress job.
Tauzin said he had no discussions about working for the organization during the lengthy negotiations over the Medicare law in 2003. Talks began after the group's president, Alan Holmer, announced in January that he would resign.
Tauzin gave up his chairmanship in February and agreed not to take part in any committee matters involving drug companies.
But those talks were short-lived, Tauzin said, because something else came up in February. "I pulled the plug on all of that because I got the word, cancer," he said.
He had cancer surgery to have a tumor removed from his small intestine, then had chemotherapy and radiation treatment. Doctors have pronounced him free of cancer, Tauzin said.
He declined to disclose his salary, except to say that is comparable to what other large trade groups in Washington pay their top executives. He had turned down an offer to be president of the Motion Picture Association of America, a post that pays more than $1 million a year.