President Obama is expected to announce today that he's appointing Dr. Thomas Frieden, NYC's health commissioner, as the new director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Frieden, who will take office next month, is respected in the public health field for focusing on threats that affect the largest numbers of people—during the Bush years, for example, he found himself at odds with an administration that was funneling billions into bioterrorism initiatives while he was focused on stopping cigarette smoking in NYC. The Times offers a telling anecdote that underscores his agenda:
Dr. Alfred Sommer, emeritus dean of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who was on the team that recommended Dr. Frieden as New York’s health chief in 2002, recalled interviewing him shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks. Dr. Frieden had flown to New York from India, where he was living and working on tuberculosis control.
Before he left India, he was asked about his top priority, Dr. Sommer said. “Oh, well, that’s easy, Al,” Dr. Sommer recalled him replying. “Tobacco. Tobacco is killing more people, and that’s my top priority.”
“Tom, I don’t disagree that tobacco is a real scourge, but have you heard of 9/11?” Dr. Sommer said he countered.
“Of course I know about that, but bioterrorists are not going to kill more New Yorkers than tobacco is,” Dr. Frieden said.
As NYC's Health Commissioner, Frieden has a kept a high profile, and not just with his push to ban public smoking. He's been praised for his calm handling of the swine flu outbreak, successfully advocating for the calorie displays at fast food restaurants, beefing up DOH inspections after the infamous Taco Bell rat rodeo, fighting West Nile virus, helping eliminate trans-fats from restaurants, and making free NYC-branded condoms ubiquitous. Dennis deLeon, president of the Latino Commission on AIDS in NYC, tells the Times, "I found he’s willing to challenge the status quo in an effort to make a difference."
But Housing Works, the NYC organization that helps people with H.I.V. and AIDS, yesterday urged the Obama administration to pick someone else. The group has been at odds with Frieden for years, in large part because of what they say is his "authoritarian, my-way-or-the-highway approach" and his attempt to "make sweeping changes to the state’s HIV-testing policies, including the elimination of written consent and pre- and post-test counseling."