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Obama Chooses NYC Health Chief to Head CDC

By Debbi Wilgoren and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, May 16, 2009

New York City Health Commissioner Thomas R. Frieden, known for his aggressive and sometimes controversial efforts to limit smoking and consumption of trans fats in the nation's largest metropolis, has been chosen by President Obama to direct the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the White House announced yesterday.

In a statement, Obama called Frieden, 48, "an expert in preparedness and response to health emergencies" who in seven years as the city health commissioner has "been at the forefront of the fight against heart disease, cancer and obesity, infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and AIDS, and in the establishment of electronic health records."

Acting CDC Director Richard E. Besser, who has steered the Atlanta-based agency through the current global swine flu outbreak, will return to his role as head of the CDC's emergency response unit. Two sources with knowledge of the process said Frieden was on a shortlist of prospects long before Besser made a name for himself by his handling of the swine flu crisis.

Frieden, who spent 12 years at the CDC including a stint in India, will take the helm of the 15,000-person, $9 billion agency in early June. The CDC is the nation's lead agency to prevent and address health problems including infectious diseases, unhealthy lifestyles and the threat of bioterrorism.

Frieden said he is "sorry to be leaving one of the greatest jobs in the world" but "deeply honored and privileged to be selected for this position."

In announcing the appointment, which does not require Senate confirmation, the White House said Frieden's anti-cigarette campaign reduced the number of smokers in New York by 350,000 and "cut teen smoking in half." He led efforts to ban smoking in bars and restaurants and to ban trans fats in food. He also pushed to require calorie information on restaurant menus.

Those efforts sparked criticism that he was pushing government interference too far. Conservatives also balked at his support for the distribution of condoms and clean needles to slow the spread of HIV.

The Center for Consumer Freedom, an industry-funded group that promotes individual choice, criticized Frieden yesterday as an "overzealous activist."

"Frieden doesn't simply blur the line between what is the government's responsibility in regulating health and what is the individual's responsibility; he barely recognizes its existence," center spokesman J. Justin Wilson said.

Some had expected Obama to name Besser as permanent head of the CDC. In his role as acting director, he has gotten high marks for his effective briefings at the height of the swine flu scare. In an e-mail to colleagues yesterday, Besser praised his successor.

"Dr. Frieden is a consummate innovator. He's had dramatic success in New York City," Besser wrote. "I know CDC will be in great hands with Dr. Frieden."

Staff writer Ceci Connolly contributed to this report.

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