Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. David A. Kessler announced his resignation Monday, ending a controversial six years in which he touched the lives of virtually every American consumer by restoring the agency as an aggressive public advocate and battled Congress and the cigarette industry over regulation of tobacco.
“I’ve been focused on several important issues, and I’ve tried to make a difference,” Kessler, 44, said in an interview. Although the Clinton administration tried to persuade him to stay, Kessler said he felt he had completed most of the objectives he set for himself when appointed by President Bush in 1990.
While best known as the architect of the administration’s initiative to restrict teenagers’ access to tobacco, Kessler also made the enforcement of food and drug safety and fraud laws a top priority, successfully engineered a major overhaul of the nation’s food labels, and streamlined the drug review process to accelerate the approval of therapies for lifethreatening conditions, such as cancer and AIDS.
“Kessler’s legacy is not tobacco, it’s the FDA and what he did for it,” said William Vodra, an attorney specializing in food and drug law whose firm represents tobacco giant Phillip Morris. “You can disagree with some of the things he did, but he restored the FDA as a good agency out to protect the public.”
Perhaps Kessler’s most far reaching accomplishment was to win standard nutritional labeling on virtually every food product sold in America, for the first time giving consumers simple yet detailed information about what they eat.
Kessler said he would remain until a successor is found, and said he had no immediate plans.
President Clinton, who was concluding a trip to Asia on Monday, said in a statement that Kessler’s “contributions to improve the health of our nation are many and their effect will continue to be felt for generations to come.’
While Kessler’s efforts were embraced by the administration and congressional Democrats, he found tough going in recent years when Republicans assumed control of Congress. GOP leaders were outraged at the agency’s attempts to regulate tobacco, and tried unsuccessfully to reduce its authority over the drug and medical device industry.
The tobacco initiative still faces a court challenge by industry, and also could be the focus of congressional action. But numerous FDA-watchers predicted Kessler’s departure will have little effect on the outcome now that the agency rule has become final, and because it has the backing of the administration.