Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, the head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), resigned Wednesday after it was revealed that she bought shares in a tobacco company while leading anti-smoking efforts.
Matt Lloyd, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), said in a statement that Fitzgerald tendered her resignation after it was determined that she could not divest her financial interests in a definitive time period.
“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,” Lloyd said in the statement, adding that HHS Secretary Alex Azar had accepted her resignation.
The resignation came less than a day after Politico revealed that Fitzgerald had traded tobacco stocks while in charge of the CDC, which is the federal agency tasked with persuading Americans to quit smoking, the leading cause of preventable death in the United States.
According to the report, Fitzgerald bought tens of thousands of dollars in new stock holdings in at least a dozen companies after she took office.
The purchases included between $1,001 and $15,000 in shares of Japan Tobacco (JT), which is one of the world’s largest tobacco companies and which sells four tobacco brands in the U.S. through a subsidiary. Fitzgerald toured the CDC’s Tobacco Laboratory just a day after the purchase.
Fitzgerald also bought between $1,001 and $15,000 each in pharmaceutical company Merck & Co., pharmaceutical and life sciences company Bayer, and health insurance company Humana. She also invested between $15,001 and $50,000 in foodservice distributor US Foods.
A spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services said the purchases were made by Fitzgerald’s financial account manager. The shares in Japan Tobacco were sold on October 26 and all of Fitzgerald’s stock holdings above $1,000 were sold by November 21, according to Politico.
Richard Painter, who served as President George W. Bush’s chief ethics lawyer, called it “tone deaf” for Fitzgerald to have owned tobacco shares while in office. “You don’t buy tobacco stocks when you are the head of the CDC. It’s ridiculous; it gives a terrible appearance,” he told Politico.
It was not immediately known who will succeed Fitzgerald to become the Trump administration’s top public health official. Deputy CDC Director Anne Schuchat, who served as acting director in the first half of 2017, is likely to becoming acting director again until a successor has been found.
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