A powerful figure in the Obama administration’s public health war on vaping will leave office on the same day Donald Trump is inaugurated. Dr. Tom Frieden, Director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has announced that he will resign on Jan. 20.
Frieden was appointed to run the agency by President Obama in 2009, just as the FDA began seizing shipments of e-cigarettes coming from China, which led to the court case (Sottera v FDA) that prevented the government from regulating then as unlicensed drug delivery devices.
He arrived in Washington fresh from his stint as New York City’s health commissioner under billionaire mayor Michael Bloomberg. Both New Yorkers were anti-tobacco zealots, and at the CDC, Frieden expanded his extremist views to include nicotine itself. He became a regular critic of vaping. He has never shied away from twisting the facts and misrepresenting the data to make the prospect of widely available vapor products seem like a threat to the very future of the nation.
He even went as far as issuing a press release that buried the story told by the data in his own survey showing the largest drop ever in teen smoking. Instead, he turned that wonderful fact into a diatribe against a “disturbing” increase in teen vaping. The CDC director turned what should have been a celebration of the huge smoking decline into a symphony of ifs and mays, mights and maybes, about the dangers of teen nicotine use.
That 2015 Frieden performance inspired a spectacular essay from risk communication expert Peter Sandman, wonderfully titled “A Promising Candidate for Most Dangerously Dishonest Public Health News Release of the Year.”
“What might lead 12 public health experts to co-author a report that papers over the comparative risk of vaping versus smoking? I don’t know. Something deeply ideological, I think. Something puritan and fundamentalist.”
Puritan and fundamentalist, that’s our CDC director. And, luckily for everyone actually concerned with public health, he’ll soon be our ex-CDC director. He didn’t get away without leaving a parting gift though. The recent Surgeon General’s report on “youth” vaping was largely his project, put together by the CDC Office on Smoking and Health.
For a doctor who took an oath to “first do no harm,” he sure did a lot of it, probably scaring thousands of people away from products that might save their lives. For vapers and anyone interested in low-risk nicotine products being available to smokers and maybe even encouraged, Dr. Frieden’s departure couldn’t come too soon.