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Public health expert sees parallels between tobacco, food industries


January 31, 2011

A former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration who took on big tobacco and restored the FDA to an aggressive advocate for public health will give a free lecture at ASU on Feb. 24 entitled “Public Health Policy in America: Who Wins, Who Loses.”

As head of the FDA, David A. Kessler, M.D. acted to speed approval of new drugs and place high priority on getting promising therapies for life-threatening diseases to patients as quickly as possible. He emphasized strong law enforcement and created an Office of Criminal Investigation within the agency.

Under his direction, the agency announced the regulation of the marketing and sale of tobacco products to children, nutrition labeling for food, user fees for drugs and biologics, preventive controls to improve food safety and measures to strengthen the nation’s blood supply.

Kessler will speak at 7 p.m., Feb. 24 in the Great Hall of the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, and the event is open to the public. He has been invited to ASU for several days as the John J. Rhodes Chair in Public Policy and American Institutions. His visit is sponsored by Barrett, the ASU Honors College.

Professor of pediatrics and epidemiology and biostatistics at University of California, San Francisco, Kessler is a Harvard-trained doctor and lawyer who led the FDA from November 1990 until March 1997. He was appointed by President George H.W. Bush and reappointed by President Bill Clinton, until he stepped down to become dean of the Yale University School of Medicine.

Kessler’s aggressive approach toward the tobacco industry led to billion-dollar settlements between big tobacco and 46 states and laid the groundwork for legislation to place tobacco under FDA regulation.

Kessler’s 2001 book, “A Question of Intent,” is a story of how he finally woke up to the possibility of taking on the tobacco companies. It is a lesson in Washington power politics, a game at which he was a novice when he started but was expert at by the end of his tenure.

He sees parallels between the tobacco and food industries. Both manipulate consumer behavior to sell products that can harm health, he says.

He published “The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite,” in April 2009, and it became an instant New York Times best seller. It has been called “a thinking person’s diet book and an investigation into an industry that wants us to eat more.” The industry loads foods with sugar, salt and fat, which can change brain chemistry and trigger overeating, he says.

Kessler also will speak to ASU classes at several campuses during his visit.

Tickets are required for the free event and are available online at barretthonors.asu.edu/rhodes2011. Visitor parking is available in the Rural Road parking structure, off Terrace Road west of Rural. For more information call 480-965-4033.