Brian King, currently a higher-up at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, will become the new director of the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Tobacco Products (CTP), the FDA announced on May 20.
An epidemiologist, King has spent more than a decade at the CDC, most recently as the deputy director for research translation at the Office on Smoking and Health (OSH). He will assume his new role on July 3, 2022. His predecessor as permanent director, Mitch Zeller, retired in the spring after a contentious career; the CTP has since been headed by Michele Mital on an interim basis.
The news comes at a time when CTP still has to sort through many of the premarket tobacco product applications (PMTAs) from the largest vape manufacturers, and as the office has been under recent fire for poor public health communication about the relative risks of e-cigarettes and safer nicotine alternatives. The reaction among consumer advocates was mixed at best: Some expressed cautious optimism that an epidemiologist might understand the issues better than a lawyer like Zeller, while others feared this might be just a status-quo move—or worse.
Many observers have pointed to King’s botching, in his CDC role, of the lung illnesses—misleadingly dubbed “e-cigarette or vaping use-associated lung injury,” or EVALI—that cropped up in the summer of 2019. Three years later, the CDC has still failed to be explicit that the cases were only tied to vaping illicitly manufactured, adulterated THC cartridges—and not nicotine, as the agency originally implied.
“Brian King’s long history of obfuscation around the issue of tobacco harm reduction is hard to ignore.”
Criticism has also been levied at King’s past comments on e-cigarettes. He’s accused of having overemphasized the harms of vaping products among youth at the expense of their harm reduction role for adult smokers, and of fear-mongering—through claims that e-cigarettes could be modified to contain “heroin, methamphetamines, powdered cocaine, and bath salts.”
“While there is always value in optimism, Brian King’s long history of obfuscation around the issue of tobacco harm reduction is hard to ignore,” Greg Conley, the president of the American Vaping Association (AVA), told Filter. “In his role at the Office on Smoking and Health, King has ignored or downplayed CDC’s own surveys showing several million adult ex-smokers using vaping as a total alternative for smoking, while leaping at opportunities to make absurd claims about the impacts of youth vaping. We are hopeful the FDA’s hiring of an ideologue to act as a supposedly neutral regulator will lead to renewed interest in this issue by members of Congress.”
“Brian King is among the worst choices for CTP that exists,” an industry insider, who requested anonymity so as not to affect his company’s PMTAs, told Filter. “He has no understanding of tobacco harm reduction or the continuum of risk, and has demonstrated a fundamental misunderstanding of what an e-cigarette even is. I expect his reign to be plagued by litigation [and that he] never accomplishes any of his stated goals for the regulation of the industry.”
In a letter circulated to FDA staff, Robert Califf, the agency’s commissioner, lauded King on his expertise, writing that “he has an extensive and nuanced understanding of, and appreciation for the 2009 Family Smoking and Prevention Act, detailed knowledge of premarket review pathways, premarket tobacco product applications, substantial equivalence, and modified risk tobacco products, as well as experience in the interagency scientific review of regulatory documents related to tobacco product standards, testing and reporting of ingredients, and health information.”
King, for his part, is anxious to get started.
“There’s critical work to be done to further prevent people from starting to use tobacco products, encourage tobacco users to quit and reduce the harm caused by tobacco use,” King said in a press statement. “During my time at CDC, I’ve had the great privilege to work with the staff at the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products on a number of important tobacco issues, and I’m excited to lead CTP to advance these efforts.”
The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, has received donations from AVA. Filter‘s Editorial Independence Policy applies.