Tom Frieden, the director of the CDC, once described tobacco executives as “mass murderers” and embraced the controversial political philosophy of the utilitarianism.
Among Frieden’s more controversial moves was the launching in 2002 of a citywide anti-tobacco initiative that included raising the local tax on cigarettes and prohibiting smoking in virtually all work spaces, including 20,000 bars and restaurants.
Says Frieden, who’s been fiercely vilified by the tobacco industry for his bluntly aggressive attack on cigarettes: “I was once quoted, accurately, as saying that during the years I spent fighting TB, my enemy was a micro-bacterial—tuberculosis—but now it’s an even lower form of life: tobacco executives! An executive from Phillip Morris actually wrote to me and complained, basically, that this was a form of hate speech, and I had to agree. So I no longer use that expression. Now I just stick to the facts and describe tobacco company executives as mass murderers.”
Frieden also controversially violated the privacy concerns of former employees by insisting on being their doctor for their physical exams.
Describing Frieden—then in his early 30s—as “driven and brilliant, with an incredible passion for public health,” Larkin was amazed by how quickly he took steps to hire new employees, greatly speeding up a process that had taken “months and months” before his arrival. “He brought applicants in on Saturdays to interview, and those who qualified would be offered the job that same afternoon. And then, when they arrived a few days later for their physical exams [another potential bottleneck], they discovered that the doctor who would be giving them their physicals, quickly and efficiently, was none other than … Tom Frieden.”
Frieden also shed some insight into his political philosophy.
While Frieden often salutes his father for teaching him about the crucial importance of basing public health strategies on solid medical evidence (“The answers are in the data!”), he also credits his alma mater with helping him develop a “utilitarian view” of medicine in which he seeks relentlessly to find out what works, and then to implement these techniques and track their effectiveness over time.
“I studied a lot of philosophy at Oberlin,” he says with a nostalgic chuckle. “I had my own little cubicle at Mudd library, where I’d write all day long. I worked a lot with [the late] Norman Care and David A. Love [also deceased], and wrote my honors thesis on Wittgenstein’s notion that the meaning of something is its use.
“I also remember thinking a lot about two very different philosophies of life—the ethical philosophy of Kant, with its ‘categorical imperative,’ and the utilitarian philosophy of thinkers such as Jeremy Bentham, which says that the value of an action can be measured by the effect it has on the well-being of the majority.”
Ask Frieden to pick which life-philosophy he prefers—“morally absolute” or “utilitarian”—and you’ll probably come away with a deepened understanding of his motivation as a public-health manager—and as a results-oriented epidemiologist with a bowl of condoms.
“If you ask me which philosophy of life I prefer,” he says with a laugh, “I gotta tell you that ‘The greatest good for the greatest number of people’ still works pretty well for me!”