The chief of the Centers For Disease Control has come in for much criticism for his response to the Ebola crisis, but his current ideas might not be so surprising in light of the many political crusades in the form of “health policies” in which Thomas Frieden has engaged.
As City Journal’s Steven Malanga reports, CDC chief Frieden has spent the last decade crafting government policies to attack smoking, transfats, and other dubious “lifestyle diseases” instead of, for instance, focusing on bio terror threats like anthrax and Ebola, or crafting policy to treat heart problems and cancers.
In 2001, only months after the Twin Towers fell in New York and during the same time Americans were on guard against anthrax, Frieden interviewed for the position of New York City Health Commissioner.
In that interview he was asked what his priority would be if he got the job. Instead of worrying about terrorism, bio terror, heart conditions, food borne illness from local restaurants, or cancer, Frieden said that his big priority would be to attack the tobacco companies.
What was Frieden’s reason for wanting to attack tobacco instead of the chief health scares of the time? “Bioterrorists are not going to kill more New Yorkers than tobacco is,” he replied.
Once he took on the NYC health position, Frieden began to initiate polices that offered increasingly “outrageous solutions to health problems based on few facts,” Malanga wrote.
For instance, in 2007 Frieden “proposed a campaign to persuade uncircumcised adult men in New York to get circumcised to reduce their risk to HIV.” This was because a study in Africa found that circumcision reduced AIDS there. But “Frieden’s proposal was widely derided and quickly dismissed because of the vast differences between the two populations and the preliminary nature of the research.”
Frieden also failed to deal well with a 2009 outbreak of the swine flu, according to Malanga. His department ignored pleas from a school to put in a policy that might have prevented a larger outbreak, but “nobody listened.”
Frieden also launched a crusade against trans fats as the man behind the 2006 attack on the city’s restaurants, demanding that they alter their mens to eliminate trans fats.
“We know trans fats increase the chance for heart attack, stroke and death, and they don’t have to be there,” Frieden said in USA Today at the time. The rules were supposed, “to make New Yorkers live longer and healthier lives.”
These dubious political campaigns were the soul of Frieden’s tenure as NYC Health Commissioner and led to other health policies, such as Mayor Bloomberg’s ban on large sodas. So, it shouldn’t be surprising that during this Ebola crisis, Frieden is parroting the tenuous claims by the White House that a travel ban on African nations suffering outbreaks of Ebola is the wrong policy.
Thomas Frieden has conducted his entire career in public health policy as if he were engaged in political causes instead of health issues.
Follow Warner Todd Huston on Twitter: @warnerthuston. Email the author at email@example.com.