Chamber of Commerce’s Big Ties to Big Tobacco Under Fire

July 08, 2015

You can’t please all of the people all of the time, and if you’re the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that’s certainly true right now. The CVS Health Corporation, the largest pharmacy health care provider in the U.S., has withdrawn its membership from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce over the Chamber’s alleged support of big tobacco.Chamber of Commerce Logo

Last year, CVS took a strong stance in the fight against tobacco and removed all tobacco products from its shelves. The company has remained steadfast in this position, so much so that it’s willing to withdraw itself from the world’s largest business organization.

The New York Times published an article on June 30 exploring the Chamber’s international efforts to lobby for and, in some cases, enact legal means to keep tobacco and the rights of the companies who manufacture and sell it as unrestricted as possible. The Times article describes the actions of some of the more than 100 Chambers’ affiliates around the world to curb efforts at anti-smoking campaigns and tax increases on tobacco products in Nepal, the Philippines, Jamaica, Uruguay, Moldova, and Australia.

Why would a country like Ukraine, who filed an international legal challenge to Australia on the country’s right to enact anti-smoking laws on its own soil, support the Chamber’s message? Why would the Ukraine care about smoking laws in Australia? From the New York Times article:

“Foreign branches pay dues and typically hew to the U.S. Chamber’s strategy, often advancing it on the ground. Members include both American and foreign businesses, a symbiotic relationship that magnifies the chamber’s clout. For foreign companies, membership comes with ‘access to the U.S. Embassy’ according to the Cambodian branch, and entree to ‘the U.S. government,’ according to the Azerbaijan branch. Members in Hanoi get an invitation to an annual trip to ‘lobby Congress and the administration’ in Washington.”

I guess that’s one way to stand up for American enterprise. (“Standing Up for American Enterprise” is the motto of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.)

The Chamber’s services have long been available to the highest bidder. The organization regularly lobbies on behalf of some the world’s largest companies to support the goals of big business, which are often at odds with the average consumer. The Chamber has a revenue of more than $165 million and more than 3 million members. It also is the largest lobbyer on Capitol Hill. It has spent more than $1 billion on lobbying since 1998 – more than three times the amount of the next highest spender. Its president, Thomas Donohue, made $4.9 million in 2011 and regularly travels the world in leased private jets. Yet somehow the Chamber is a “non-profit” organization.

Alienating its members for the sake of profits is not new for the Chamber. In recent years, the Chamber’s strong stance against efforts to enact climate change legislation has cost it membership. Nike and Apple left the organization in 2009 when the Chamber threatened to sue the Environmental Protection Agency over regulating greenhouse gas emissions. In 2013, Swedish construction giant Skanska left the Chamber, protesting the organization’s lobbying against green building codes. Johnson & Johnson, General Electric, Microsoft, Dow, have denounced the Chamber and Exelon, Pacific Gas & Electric, and the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce quit it entirely.

The Chamber’s response to the New York Times’ original article was non committal. (“The chamber declined to say if it supported any measures to curb smoking.”) The Chamber’s response to CVS’ withdrawal was less so. (“’It’s unfortunate that a concerted misinformation campaign about the U.S. Chamber’s position on smoking has resulted in a company leaving our organization. … To be clear, the chamber does not support smoking and wants people to quit,’ the statement said.”)

It remains to be seen what other fallout may come from these revelations. Several Senate Democrats, billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson, and Dr. Margaret Chan, head of the World Health Organization, have all weighed in criticizing the Chamber’s actions. The Executive Vice President of Anthem – one of the U.S.’s largest insurers and a proponent of anti-smoking efforts – currently sits on the Board of the Chamber. It seems the Chamber has put itself in the position where it can only please some of the people, some of the time. And the “some people” it’s choosing to please is big tobacco and the money that comes with it.


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