CDC Director resigns amid controversy over tobacco stocks

“You don’t buy tobacco stocks when you are the head of the CDC. It’s ridiculous; it gives a terrible appearance.”

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Image Credit: Politico

The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention resigned Wednesday following a recent Politico article exposing her questionable stock purchases before and after her appointment. Besides purchasing and owning multiple stocks in tobacco while leading a federal campaign against smoking, former CDC Director Brenda Fitzgerald also bought stocks of Bayer and Merck & Co., who have partnered with the CDC while developing vaccines and medications.

“You don’t buy tobacco stocks when you are the head of the CDC. It’s ridiculous; it gives a terrible appearance,” Richard Painter, who served as George W. Bush’s chief ethics lawyer from 2005 to 2007, told Politico.

“Like all presidential personnel, Dr. Fitzgerald’s financial holdings were reviewed by the HHS Ethics Office, and she was instructed to divest of certain holdings that may pose a conflict of interest,” a Health and Human Services Department spokesman recently confirmed. “During the divestiture process, her financial account manager purchased some potentially conflicting stock holdings. These additional purchases did not change the scope of Dr. Fitzgerald’s recusal obligations, and Dr. Fitzgerald has since also divested of these newly acquired potentially conflicting publicly traded stock holdings.”

Before becoming CDC director on July 7, Fitzgerald owned stock in at least five tobacco companies, including Reynolds American, British American Tobacco, Imperial Brands, Philip Morris International, and Altria Group Inc. Less than a month after taking office, she bought tens of thousands of dollars in new stock holdings in at least a dozen companies, including Japan Tobacco, Bayer, Merck, Humana, and US Food Holding Co.

According to the CDC, tobacco use is the leading cause of preventable disease, disability, and death in the United States. At the forefront of the nation’s efforts to reduce deaths and prevent chronic diseases that result from tobacco use, the CDC and its partners promote tobacco control interventions, including actions to prevent youth from starting to use tobacco, smoke-free environments, programs to help tobacco users quit, and steps to eliminate tobacco-related health disparities in different population groups

“It’s stunning,” Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, told Politico. “It sends two messages, both of which are deeply disturbing. First, it undermines the credibility of a public official when they argue that tobacco is the No. 1 preventable cause of disease. Second, and perhaps even worse, it indicates a public official is willing to put their personal profit above the ethics of investing in a company whose products cause so much harm.”

On Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued a statement: “This morning Secretary Azar accepted Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald’s resignation as Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Dr. Fitzgerald owns certain complex financial interests that have imposed a broad recusal limiting her ability to complete all of her duties as the CDC Director. Due to the nature of these financial interests, Dr. Fitzgerald could not divest from them in a definitive time period. After advising Secretary Azar of both the status of the financial interests and the scope of her recusal, Dr. Fitzgerald tendered, and the Secretary accepted, her resignation. The Secretary thanks Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald for her service and wishes her the best in all her endeavors.”

Former HHS Secretary Tom Price resigned last September after Politico reported on his incessant use of private charter flights for official travel.

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