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Food & Drug Administration Commissioner David Kessler laughs off charges from Philip Morris USA that he's part of an "evil cabal" trying to ban tobacco.

"Next question," he says.

But that's about all the 44-year-old Republican, appointed by President Bush in 1990, laughs off as he mounts what could be the biggest fight of his short political life in trying to regulate tobacco.

President Clinton's decision to give the go-ahead to both the pediatrician's wish to regulate cigarettes as a "drug delivery device" and Dr. Kessler's proposal to use ad restrictions as a main course have made the commissioner a target/hero to a whole new band of watchers.

It isn't an altogether unfamiliar role. Dr. Kessler's efforts to remove the "fresh" label on spaghetti sauce and orange juice, and for a food labeling format that makes high fat content more visible, earlier had attracted attention.

The tobacco fight is one the FDA commissioner believes is very important, and he quickly disputed contentions he's out to ban cigarettes.

"The goals of the proposed regulation is to reduce the risk of children starting to smoke, and any other argument is meant to obscure what we are focused on," he told Advertising Age.

Dr. Kessler is also considerably more cautious than Bill Clinton in making charges about tobacco companies and advertising.

While the president accused the tobacco companies of purposely using their advertising to appeal to underage smokers, Dr. Kessler was more circumspect.

"What I've said is that tobacco ad messages repeated often enough have an enormous effect" on young people, he said. "Whether the effect is intentional, it is impacting children, and certainly in our 17-month inquiry we have seen certain programs that have an impact on young children."

In an irony, the commissioner admitted that anti-smoking advertising alone could significantly deter young people from smoking. However, he sees a comprehensive program that includes a number of avenues to reduce smoking as vital.

"What we've learned from tobacco control experts worldwide is that if you want to be effective in reducing kids who start smoking, it's absolutely critical that you have a comprehensive series of steps," Dr. Kessler said. "There is no one step that is the magic bullet. The most effective programs are those programs that are most comprehensive."

Dr. Kessler also made clear that while he's not proposing banning tobacco, he does believe an underage program could eliminate tobacco as an issue.

Dr. Kessler said: "If you don't start smoking by 18 or 19, you don't start smoking."


David Kessler

BIRTHDATE: May 31, 1951, in New York City

EDUCATION: B.A., Amherst College, 1973; law degree, University of Chicago, 1978; medical degree, Harvard University, 1979

CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: Food & Drug Administration commissioner since 1990; previously was medical director of Einstein-Montefiore Hospital, New York, and taught food and drug law at Columbia University's law school.

PERSONAL: Married; two children.

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