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FDA’s Top Tobacco Scientist Takes Job at Marlboro Maker Philip Morris

    Philip Morris Marlboro branded cigarettes will be put up for sale at a gas station in Tiskilwa, Illinois, USA on Wednesday, July 12, 2017.
    enlarge / Philip Morris Marlboro branded cigarettes will be put up for sale at a gas station in Tiskilwa, Illinois, USA on Wednesday, July 12, 2017.

    The top tobacco scientist at the Food and Drug Administration has quit his job to work for tobacco giant Philip Morris International (PMI), best known as the maker of Marlboro cigarettes.

    It is the second high-profile FDA appointment by PMI in recent months, and it comes at a time when the FDA is struggling to regulate the evolving smoking and vaping products by companies like PMI. Earlier this month, for example, the FDA announced an embarrassing kickback in its failed attempt to ban Juul e-cigarette products. Juul — largely responsible for a youth vaping epidemic — is partially owned by Altria, which split off PMI in 2008.

    On Tuesday, Matt Holman, director of the Office of Science at the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products (CTP), announced his departure, effective immediately, to accept a position at PMI. Holman, a biochemist by training, served with the FDA for more than 20 years and was director of the CTP’s Office of Science since 2017.

    In a memo later Tuesday, CTP director Brian King told staff the news of Holman’s departure, noting that he had been on indefinite leave. Holman had “withdrawn, consistent with the bureau’s ethics policy, from all CTP/FDA work while exploring career opportunities outside of government,” King wrote.

    In a statement, an FDA spokesperson added that “Agency employees are free to pursue outside government employment and must immediately disclose that they are exploring outside government opportunities.”

    Regulatory headache

    It’s unclear when Holman retired, but it appears to have been less than four months. On March 18, Holman signed the third generation of PMI’s heated, smokeless tobacco product, IQOS. Holman also signed PMI’s first IQOS application in 2020.

    Meanwhile, in May, PMI hired Keagan Lenihan, who had held the positions of FDA’s Associate Commissioner for External Relations and Strategic Initiatives and then FDA Chief of Staff. At PMI, she is now vice president of Government Affairs and Public Policy and head of the company’s DC office. PMI has not disclosed the title of Holman’s new role.

    The moves come as the FDA struggles to keep up with e-cigarettes and new vapor products. In addition to the recent Juul fiasco, last September the FDA missed a court-imposed deadline to make decisions about specific e-cigarettes, including Juul. The FDA said earlier this month it is trying to process about 1 million non-tobacco nicotine products submitted by more than 200 manufacturers.

    Last week, FDA Commissioner Robert Califf announced that he had commissioned an external review of the CTP and its food program. The move acknowledged that the agency stumbled in its regulatory responsibilities. “We have made significant progress and made regulatory decisions on a wide range of millions of products,” Califf said of the CTP. “But even greater challenges lie ahead as we determine how the agency will navigate complex policy issues and determine enforcement activities for an increasing number of new products that could potentially have significant public health implications.”