The new chief of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which monitors significant public health concerns, including the impact of sugary beverages on obesity and heart disease, will be led by Brenda Fitzgerald, a Georgia physician whose signature childhood obesity project was underwritten by Coca-Cola.
The announcement to appoint Fitzgerald as the CDC director was made on Friday by Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price.
Fitzgerald, a former Republican candidate for Congress and adviser to Newt Gingrich, most recently served as the Georgia Public Health Commissioner. Price and Gingrich both previously represented the 6th Congressional District in Georgia, now held by Republican Karen Handel.
During her tenure as Georgia’s public health watchdog, in a state that has one of the highest obesity rates in the nation, Fitzgerald and Gov. Nathan Deal launched SHAPE, a statewide effort to address childhood obesity through “physical activity before class, physical activity during class, and more structured recess.”
Muhtar Kent, the chief executive and chairman of Coca-Cola Company, appeared with the governor and Fitzgerald to promote the initiative, along with a pledge of $1 million from his company to fund it. Clyde Tuggle, a Coca-Cola executive responsible for the company’s lobbying strategy, was initially appointed to the board overseeing the state anti-obesity strategy, including Fitzgerald’s SHAPE initiative. (Tuggle announced his retirement from Coca-Cola in March of this year.)
“This generous award will have a significant impact on the lives of our children today and well into the future,” Fitzgerald said at the news conference. “Unless we address this obesity epidemic facing our children right now, they will likely suffer life-long consequences of obesity — diabetes, hypertension and heart disease. With this money we can make a real difference.”
Coca-Cola was so fond of Fitzgerald’s approach to obesity issues that an opinion column authored by Fitzgerald is featured prominently on Coca-Cola’s website.
Public health officials around the country have made obesity a top issue of concern. The United States has the distinction of having the highest rate of childhood obesity in the world, according to a recent report from the New England Journal of Medicine. And multiple reports have found that regular consumption of sugary beverages is a leading driver of obesity, which is linked to heart disease, diabetes, kidney diseases, cancers and hypertension.