Blair Horner: Big Tobacco And The U.S. Chamber of Commerce

Jul 13, 2015


The New York Times recently exposed how the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the lobbying arm of Big Business in America, was advancing the cause of the tobacco industry around the world.  The U.S. Chamber has been lobbying to block the efforts of nations to enact pro-health measures that seek to reduce the carnage caused by smoking.

The Times documented the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s tactics in fighting against health measures to reduce tobacco use, measures such as smoke-free indoor public places, graphic warning labels on tobacco products, restrictions on tobacco marketing and increased tobacco taxes.  According to the Times, the U.S. Chamber has been deeply involved in efforts ranging from Latin America, to Europe, and to Asia. 

In some cases, the U.S. Chamber directly opposed health policies.  In letters to those countries’ public officials, the U.S. Chamber has voiced strong “concerns” about such laws; even threatening that opposing the tobacco industry’s wishes could result in significant economic harm.

The Times uncovered evidence of the U.S. Chamber pitting countries against each other in trade disputes.  For example, the Times reported that the nation of Ukraine became embroiled in a lengthy international trade dispute with Australia at the request of the U.S. Chamber’s local affiliate.

In addition, the U.S. Chamber has been systematically engaged in opposing measures in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) that would protect countries’ sovereign rights to implement public health policies.

The Times quoted one World Health Organization official, “[The U.S. Chamber] represents the interest of the tobacco industry…They are putting their feet everywhere where there are stronger regulations coming up.”

While the chamber has local branches in the United States, it also has more than 100 affiliates worldwide.  According to the Times, 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.  In Estonia, the U.S. ambassador serves as honorary president of the chamber’s local affiliate.

Of course, to those who closely watch New York’s politics, the growing clout of the tobacco lobby and its allies comes as no surprise.  From 2000 through 2008, New York policymakers took major steps—banning smoking in all public and workplaces, raising tobacco taxes, mandating that all cigarettes had to meet fire safety standards—that made New York the nation’s leader in protecting the public’s health.

Since that time however, the tobacco lobby rebuilt its strength.  During the years 2011 through 2014, the tobacco industry’s political operation has strengthened.  In 2013, tobacco giant Altria (formerly known as Philip Morris) topped the charts in lobbying spending in New York State.

The growing political clout of the tobacco lobby has paid off.  Funding for the state’s tobacco control program has been slashed by half and now ranks 21st in the nation in terms of adequacy, despite New York raising billions in tobacco revenues and a huge increase in overall spending in the state budget.  In addition, the current Cuomo Administration has advanced no new significant tobacco control measures. 

Let’s remember that the tobacco industry is unique – it makes a product that used as directed, addicts and kills.  And it has for decades lied to the American people and many around the world about the dangers of their products.  When government officials get bamboozled by the industry’s deceptions, or capitulate to Big Tobacco’s – and their allies’ – political clout, people die.

The Obama Administration should make it clear that the tobacco industry and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce do not speak for it and the Administration should rescind whatever informal deals it has with the Chamber. 

In New York, Governor Cuomo should stand up to the industry and expand the fight against the number one cancer killer in New York by boosting state support for its anti-smoking programs.

Blair Horner is the Legislative Director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

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