The New York Times recently reported that the national business lobbying organization, along with its foreign affiliates, has become “the hammer for the tobacco industry, engaging in a worldwide effort to fight antismoking laws of all kinds.” Often without disclosing their tie to tobacco companies, the Chamber or its affiliates lobby against tobacco control by intimating costly litigation for alleged trademark infringement and threatening the loss of international investment while raising dubious questions about the science behind well-proven strategies. They pit countries against each other. The Chamber requested, for example, that Ukraine file an action against Australia before the World Health Organization over one of Australia’s tobacco control laws, resulted in lengthy and costly litigation. The Chamber vigorously lobbies to ensure that international trade agreements are beneficial to the tobacco industry and do not restrict the industry’s authority to sue sovereign nations for tobacco control efforts.
Upon learning these revelations, CVS withdrew its membership in the Chamber. The large drug store chain, which last year stopped selling any tobacco products, issuing a statement saying "CVS’ purpose is to help people on their path to better health, and we fundamentally believe tobacco use is in direct conflict with this purpose." A group of Democratic senators issued a statement calling the Chamber’s decision to use its international clout to fight life-saving measures to reduce tobacco use “craven and unconscionable.”
The Chamber, whose board of directors and affiliate membership includes almost every large tobacco company in the world, says it is the victim of a concerted misinformation campaign. They are not in support of smoking – despite their opposition to well-proven anti-smoking strategies – they are merely supporting their members’ business interests. They complain that tobacco companies are discriminated against and the tobacco industry should be treated just like every other industry.
But the tobacco industry is not like every other industry. Tobacco is the only legal consumer product that, when used as intended, kills up to half of its users. Unlike other products, which cause harm only if abused or misused, there is no known tobacco product that is safe to use. Over the years the tobacco industry has designed cigarettes to be more attractive and more addictive while deliberately misleading the public on the risks of smoking cigarettes. Tobacco use exerts a heavy economic burden on countries around the world with health care expenditures, productivity losses, fire damage and other costs estimated at $500 billion annually. By almost any measure, human or economic, tobacco is a uniquely dangerous product requiring unique regulations and laws.
The tobacco industry’s tactics aren’t pretty. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), with decades of experience in the crosshairs of an aggressive tobacco industry, the industry's methods include “conspiring to hijack the political and legislative process, exaggerating the economic importance of the industry; manipulating public opinion to gain the appearance of respectability; faking support through front groups; discrediting proven science and intimidating governments with litigation or the threat of litigation.”
The Chamber of Commerce should get out of the business of lobbying for an industry that devastates the lives of millions of people around the world – or, if it refuses, its members should follow the leadership of CVS and quit. Every six seconds, somewhere in the world, a person dies from tobacco use. WHO reports that tobacco kills 6 million people a year – and is projected to kill a billion this century if current trends are not reduced.
Nan Feyler, JD, MPH, is the Phyllis W. Beck Professor of Law at Temple University Beasley School of Law.