Update 9:48 a.m. ET: Brenda Fitzgerald, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, resigned Wednesday morning after Politico reported that she bought stocks in a tobacco company after being tapped to lead the public health agency. Our original story appears below.
Smoking is "the leading cause of preventable disease and death in the U.S.," the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports, but that didn't stop the agency's director from buying shares in one of the largest tobacco companies in the world after taking over the job, Politico reports.
Trump appointee Brenda Fitzgerald, the administration's top public health official, bought between $1,001 and $15,000 of Japan Tobacco after becoming director in July 2017, a decision that has sparked outright surprise by many, and alarm from ethics groups. Prior to assuming her leadership role at the CDC, she also owned stock in five other tobacco companies.
"You don't buy tobacco stocks when you are the head of the CDC," argued Richard Painter, the former chief ethics lawyer of President George W. Bush. "It's ridiculous; it gives a terrible appearance."
Added Matthew Myers, the president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids: "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."
There is some question about if Fitzgerald's stock purchases were an ethics violation. She eventually sold the shares of Japan Tobacco nearly four months after becoming CDC director, and the rest of her holdings, including in drug, health insurance, and food companies, by November. "Like all presidential personnel, Dr. Fitzgerald's financial holdings were reviewed by the [Health and Human Services] Ethics Office, and she was instructed to divest of certain holdings that may pose a conflict of interest," a HHS spokesman confirmed.
Still, argued ethics lawyer Painter, "it stinks to high heaven." Read more about Fitzgerald's investments at Politico.