In 2016, evidence emerged showing Barbara Bowman, Ph.D., then-director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Division for Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention, assisted a Coca-Cola representative in efforts to influence World Health Organization officials to relax recommendations on sugar limits.1 Just two days after her betrayal of the public trust was exposed, Bowman vacated her post.2
Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald took her place, but it didn’t take long before we learned the newly instated CDC director also had a long history of collaborating with Coca-Cola. 3,4 During her six-year stint as commissioner of Georgia’s department of public health, Fitzgerald received $1 million5 in funding from the company to combat childhood obesity.
At the time of her appointment to CDC director, Jim O’Hara, director of health promotion policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest stated,6 “We hope Dr. Fitzgerald, as head of CDC, avoids partnering with Coke on obesity for the same reason she would avoid partnering with the tobacco industry on lung cancer prevention.”
In a twist of irony, Politico7 recently exposed Fitzgerald’s tobacco investments, which led to her handing in her resignation a day later. Spokesman Matt Lloyd issued a public statement saying, “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.”
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, commented on the situation, saying, “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.”
Flagrant Conflicts of Interest at the CDC
Are there truly no qualified individuals who do not have deep ties to industry available to fill the highest posts within the CDC? It seems rather remarkable that two CDC directors in a row have been caught maintaining such obvious conflicts of interest.
The discovery of Fitzgerald’s investments in a Japanese tobacco company was made possible by the 2012 law introduced by Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-New York, which prohibits insider trading by government employees. The law requires full disclosure of financial trades made by government employees, including Congressional members, and this is how Politico discovered Fitzgerald’s purchase of tobacco stocks.
In a statement, Slaughter said, “This episode is exactly why I wrote this law … The American people deserve to know whether federal officials are upholding the public trust and adhering to the highest ethical standards, or using their powerful positions to enrich themselves.” In this case, Fitzgerald reportedly owned stocks in no less than five different tobacco companies, plus drug companies, when she was appointed CDC director. As part of her ethics agreement, she sold those stocks when accepting her new position.
But then, mere months into the job, she went and bought stocks in Japan Tobacco International (JTI), one of the largest tobacco companies in the world. She also bought stocks in a dozen other health-related companies, including Merck, Bayer, Humana and U.S. Foods Holding Corp.
She’s also been criticized for being slow to sell off other, earlier investments that were preventing her from fulfilling her professional duties. As reported by Politico, she was unable to provide Congressional testimony on at least three separate occasions due to financial conflicts of interest.8 Two of those hearings involved cancer detection and the opioid epidemic.
It’s really hard to imagine someone can reach this level of power and be so clueless about ethics. Smoking is a leading cause of preventable death in the U.S., so clearly, investing in a tobacco company is going to be at odds with your professional duty as the leader of the CDC. Just last November Fitzpatrick issued a CDC statement reinforcing the agency’s determination to “continue to use proven strategies to help smokers quit and to prevent children from using any tobacco products.”9
Vaping Technology — Hardly a Viable Smoking Cessation Tool
Interestingly, JTI’s emerging product line is primarily focused on vaping products,10,11 which are increasingly being marketed as tools to quit smoking regular cigarettes. One wonders whether this might have influenced Fitzpatrick’s decision to invest in this company. Such ponderings are entirely speculative of course, but the fact remains that while marketed as a smoking cessation tool, emerging evidence suggests vaping and electronic cigarettes are just as harmful, if not more harmful, than regular cigarettes.
Just last year, the CDC warned that e-cigarette use among children is a growing health concern. At present, e-cigarettes are the most commonly used form of tobacco by American youth and young adults. A significant draw for youngsters is the fact that vaping pens and e-cigarettes can be used to smoke all sorts of flavored concoctions, from bubble gum and watermelon to chocolate.
So, for Fitzgerald to state a public oath to fight use of tobacco products among children, and then purchase stocks in a company whose chief new product line is focused on kid-friendly vaping technology seems insincere at best.
At worst, her connection with JTI might eventually have led to her downplaying harms of vaping, or worse, endorsing its use as a smoking cessation tool based on flawed or biased science by the industry. Again, this is all speculation, and since Fitzpatrick has stepped down, the point is moot anyway. I’m speculating merely to draw attention to the very real dangers these kinds of conflicts of interest can create.