Trump’s top public health official invested in Big Tobacco after taking the job

Where there's smoke there's fire.

CDC Director Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald. CREDIT: Melissa Golden for The Washington Post via Getty Images
CDC Director Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald. CREDIT: Melissa Golden for The Washington Post via Getty Images

A top public health official for the Trump administration invested in Big Tobacco while leading the agency charged with reducing tobacco use.

Brenda Fitzgerald, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), bought between $1,001 and $15,000 worth of stock in Japan Tobacco after assuming leadership of the CDC last July, Politico reported. The company sells several different cigarette brands in the U.S. through a subsidiary, including Camels, American Spirits, and Winstons.

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The day after Fitzgerald purchased her tobacco stock, she toured the CDC’s Tobacco Laboratory to learn more about how chemicals in cigarettes harmed human health. When she was previously working for the Georgia Department of Public Health, Fitzgerald listed tobacco cessation as one of her public health priorities — despite then owning stocks in five major tobacco companies, including Philip Morris International and British American Tobacco.

“It sends two messages both of which are deeply disturbing,” Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, told Politico. “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.”

A CDC report released in November found that 1 in 5 U.S. adults used some type of tobacco product in 2015. What’s more, smoking causes more than 480,000 deaths each year in the United States, the agency said — nearly one in five deaths.

“Too many Americans are harmed by cigarette smoking, which is the nation’s leading preventable cause of death and disease,” Fitzgerald said in a statement accompanying the report’s release. “CDC will continue to use proven strategies to help smokers quit and to prevent children from using any tobacco products.”

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This isn’t the first time the CDC has faced political controversy in the Trump era. In December it was reported that policy analysts were barred from using certain words in their 2019 budget, including “fetus,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” and “science-based.” A CDC analyst said that when they were told of the changes the reaction was “incredulous.” “It was very much ‘Are you serious? Are you kidding?'” they said.

The Trump administration’s 2018 budget also called for massive cuts in scientific and medical funding, most of which was thankfully restored by Congress.

Fitzgerald’s financial conflicts of interest also stem beyond her investment in Big Tobacco. Earlier in January it was reported that she was still unable to testify before Congress about what the CDC is doing — including its efforts to tackle the opioid epidemic — because of her unresolved conflicts of interest. Specifically, Fitzgerald and her husband have invested more than $300,000 in GW Ventures, a biotech startup, and Greenway Messenger, a health IT company, but could not divest for them because of the complicated rules prohibiting rapid sales.

“I’m frustrated Director Fitzgerald is once again unable to join us,” Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) said during a health committee hearing earlier in January. “Due to conflicts of interest presented by investments, our CDC director still has to recuse herself on some of the most important health issues we face.”


UPDATE: A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services released a statement on Wednesday, saying that Fitzgerald had offered her resignation earlier in the morning, in the wake of Politico’s report outlining her tobacco stock purchases.

“This morning [HHS] Secretary Azar accepted Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald’s resignation as Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” the statement read. “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.”

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According to STAT News reporter Helen Branswell, CDC staff have not yet received word on who will be acting director of the agency in Fitzgerald’s absence.