CDC Director Resigns After Trading in Big Tobacco Stocks

By Keri Blakinger 02/05/18

“It takes a certain kind of cluelessness for a director of the [CDC] to purchase stock in a tobacco company a month after assuming the job as the nation’s top public health official.”

Cartoon cigarette butt smiling and holding money.

Embattled Centers for Disease Control Director Brenda Fitzgerald stepped down last week after news broke that she’d traded tobacco stocks while working at the Atlanta-based agency.

“It ain’t good,” Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, told NBC News.

The move came less than 48 hours after a new Health and Human Services secretary touting tough ethics took the reins of the department—just in time to accept a major resignation in a high-profile operating division.

Alex Azar, who was sworn in earlier in the week, announced Fitzgerald’s departure in a brief public statement, and CDC staff only found out later through news reports.

Fitzgerald had already been taking heat for financial conflicts of interests that forced her to recuse herself from CDC work relating to opioids and cancer, according to STAT News.

“It is unacceptable that the person responsible for leading our nation’s public health efforts has, for months, been unable to fully engage in the critical work she was appointed to do,” said Sen. Patty Murray, adding that the case is “yet another example of this administration’s dysfunction and questionable ethics.”

The ranking Democrat on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, Murray had previously dinged Fitzgerald for not divesting holdings sooner to eliminate conflicts of interest.

A seasoned OB-GYN and former Georgia public health commissioner, Fitzgerald took the helm of CDC in July.

That same month, she bought between $1,000 and $15,000 in Japan Tobacco stocks, according to Politico. She also invested in big pharma companies including Merck and Bayer. Four months later, Fitzgerald dumped her big tobacco investments – but the damage was already done.

A day after Politico broke the story on Tuesday, Fitzgerald told the Wall Street Journal that she didn’t know her investment manager had made the purchase.

“I can understand what happened. The broker buys something, you find out and say, ‘Oh my God, get rid of it,’” Benjamin said.

Others were less sympathetic.

“It takes a certain kind of cluelessness for a director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to purchase stock in a tobacco company a month after assuming the job as the nation’s top public health official,” said Dr. Peter Lurie, president of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, agrees: “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.”

But some see upsides to the resignation. With Fitzgerald out, infectious disease specialist and past interim director Dr. Anne Schuchat is in charge again, which could be a blessing during an unusually rough flu season.

“Dr. Schuchat is entirely competent and the model for what the next CDC director should be — competent while being grounded in science,” Benjamin said. Schuchat also took the helm last year when Dr. Tom Frieden stepped down at the start of Trump administration.

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.