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CDC head tasked with regulating tobacco just resigned for buying tobacco stocks

"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."

by Alex Lubben
Jan 31 2018, 3:51pm

The head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has stepped down after allegations that she’d bought stock in tobacco companies since taking her post last summer. The CDC is tasked with leading the U.S.’s anti-smoking efforts, as part of its broader mission.

About a month into her tenure as the director of the CDC, Brenda Fitzgerald bought between $1,001 and $15,000 worth of stocks in the tobacco giant Japan Tobacco, a report in Politico revealed on Tuesday. The company sells four brands of cigarettes in the U.S. through a subsidiary.

"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,” Matt Lloyd, a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services, said in a statement Wednesday.

A day after Fitzgerald bought the Japan Tobacco stock, on Aug. 8, she toured the CDC’s tobacco lab, the site of government research into the harms of smoking. Fitzgerald also bought stock in drug companies Merck & Co., Bayer, and health insurance company Humana at the time.

A month later, she signed an ethics agreement and agreed to divest from tobacco company Philip Morris International.

Fitzgerald was already under congressional scrutiny for not divesting certain stocks that created a conflict of interest for her before, and she'd been recusing herself from various aspects of the CDC's operations for months.

Her ethics agreement states that she’d stay out of “many particular matters in the area of cancer detection and in the area of health information technology, including electronic health records and practice management/revenue cycle software for medical practices,” according to an earlier Politico report. The vague definition of the areas from which she’d recused herself meant that, depending on how something like the “area of health information technology” is defined, she might have been staying out of a lot of the agency’s business.

In November, the CDC had to cancel her appearance before Congress because she hadn’t yet shed investments that posed a conflict of interest in her ability to comment on the CDC’s response to the opioid epidemic.

Fitzgerald is now the second high-profile health official in the Trump administration to resign, following Tom Price, the former head of the Department of Health and Human Services, who stepped down in September after coming under fire (also after a Politico report) for his use of federal funds to pay for his travel on private jets.

Correction 1/31 11:18 a.m.: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated Fitzgerald had already signed her ethics agreement when she bought Japan Tobacco stock.

Cover image: Brenda Fitzgerald, Georgia Department of Public Health commissioner, left, and Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal respond to questions in Atlanta, Oct. 16, 2014. (AP Photo/David Tulis, File)