US Chamber of Commerce’s shameful tobacco work

National business group and foreign affiliates are fighting tobacco regulation and anti-smoking efforts

I RECALL SITTING in my office in the US Senate’s Hart Office Building in Washington, DC, between 2008 and 2010 with my desk TV always turned onto one of the cable news channels when the Senate was not in session.  Incessantly, I saw TV ads from the US Chamber of Commerce speaking as the “voice of small business” attacking Democratic efforts to achieve national health reform and universal coverage because of the harm it would cause small employers.

Only later, in 2011, did we learn that the entire tab for that endless advertising campaign was paid for by major US health insurance companies and their trade association, America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), to the tune of more than $100 million in direct donations.  Later, I had the chance to ask AHIP President Karen Ignagni (who recently stepped down) why these donations had never been disclosed.  “Because no one ever asked us,” she replied.

Yesterday, the New York Times reported a devastating story about the role the US Chamber of Commerce is playing in advancing the interests of the global tobacco industry in thwarting tobacco regulation and smoking prevention efforts in nations all around the globe:

“From Ukraine to Uruguay, Moldova to the Philippines, the US Chamber of Commerce and its foreign affiliates have become the hammer for the tobacco industry, engaging in a worldwide effort to fight antismoking laws of all kinds, according to interviews with government ministers, lobbyists, lawmakers and public health groups in Asia, Europe, Latin America and the United States.”

Public health experts have been reporting for some time that smoking rates are down substantially in developed nations, and up dramatically in developing countries — along with staggering increases in the diseases and mortality that accompany use of tobacco products.  And thus, the focus of tobacco industry lobbying and influence peddling swings in that direction, aided and abetted by the global reach of the US Chamber of Commerce.

When I was a state representative in Boston in the 1980s and ’90s, I spent lots of time visiting chambers of commerce around Massachusetts as part of my work.  Though I had plenty of disagreements with members and leaders, they always struck me as hard-working, salt-of-the-earth businessmen and women, working their butts off to succeed and to prosper.  Even the more upscale Greater Boston Chamber, run for so many years by the recently retired and estimable Paul Guzzi, is a class outfit.  It’s a different world at 1615 H Street in Washington, in the US Chamber’s palatial — and I mean palatial — headquarters.

What’s the real impact of their advocacy?  Here are some facts from the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids:

  • Globally, tobacco kills nearly 6 million people a year and accounts for one in 10 deaths among adults.
  • Almost a billion men in the world – including half of men in low- and middle-income countries – and 250 million women smoke. If no action is taken, 650 million smokers alive today will eventually die from tobacco-related diseases.
  • Every day, 80,000 to 100,000 young people around the world become addicted to tobacco. If current trends continue, 250 million children and young people alive today will die from tobacco-related diseases.
  • The top five cigarette-consuming countries are China, Russia, United States, Japan and Indonesia. China consumes more than 35 percent of the world’s cigarettes, with 53 percent of males smoking. Philip Morris International, British American Tobacco, Japan Tobacco International and Imperial Tobacco are the world’s four largest multinational tobacco companies.

Here’s a key question: Is the Chamber getting paid by the tobacco industry for their advocacy activities?  Given the Chamber’s track record with the health insurance industry, perhaps the only necessary question is: How much is the tobacco industry paying the Chamber for their work in defense of the unfettered right of tobacco companies to sell their addictive products? And which individual companies are paying the tab?

Meet the Author

I hope Chamber affiliates and other business groups across the nation rise up in revulsion to the Chamber’s prostitution for global big tobacco. This is a big black eye for legitimate business organizations everywhere. The US Chamber’s endorsement of the global cause of big tobacco is their Confederate flag. They are aligning themselves and their members with global merchants of death.  They deserve shame and disgrace until they end these activities.

John McDonough teaches at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health and blogs at healthstew.com