The U.S. Senate on Thursday narrowly confirmed Xavier Becerra as President Biden’s secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), reports The New York Times.
Becerra will take charge as the Biden administration is working to lead the nation out of the coronavirus pandemic.
Biden’s selection of Becerra was a surprise, and it set off an immediate debate over whether, as a lawyer, he was the correct choice to lead a department that oversees high-profile medical agencies, including the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the National Institutes of Health. Republicans argued he was unqualified.
Democrats argued that Becerra had deep expertise in health policy. As California’s attorney general, he led 20 states and the District of Columbia in a campaign to protect the Affordable Care Act from being dismantled by his Republican counterparts. He has also been vocal in the Democratic Party about fighting for women’s health, including access to contraceptives and abortion.
In a tweet earlier this year, Derek Yach, president of the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World, described the nomination of Becerra as a “serious missed opportunity.”
“At a time of public health crisis, deep expertise in public health, medicine and science should matter,” Yach wrote. “Sadly, this is not apparent in the pick of the lead cabinet health voice.”
James A. Mish, CEO of 22nd Century Group, welcomed Becerra’s appointment, citing his leadership in tackling cigarette addiction.
According to Mish, Secretary Becerra is a long-time proponent of a reduced nicotine cap for cigarettes and tougher regulation for the tobacco industry. While serving as the attorney general of California in 2018, Becerra and five other attorneys general wrote a letter in response to the FDA’s Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, strongly supporting a tobacco product standard for the nicotine level of combusted cigarettes.
“We look forward to joining Secretary Becerra, the HHS and the FDA on tackling the pressing public health tragedy caused by addictive cigarettes that is costing millions of Americans’ lives and billions of dollars each year,” said Mish in a statement.