An opinion piece published on July 30 by Al Jazeera exposes the work of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on behalf of the tobacco industry in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement negotiations.
The Chamber's primary goal? To ensure that the TPP allows tobacco corporations to directly sue federal, state, and local governments who dare to use regulations to reduce tobacco use. These cases will be heard in foreign tribunals, in secrecy, and without appeal to any U.S. court. Similar trade agreements are already being used by the tobacco industry to sue other countries; for example Australia has spent $50 million to defend standardized packaging of tobacco products.
The Al Jazeera op-ed follows on an investigative piece by The New York Times detailing the work of the Chamber overseas to undermine tobacco control policy, especially in developing countries, where the tobacco industry sees its future.
In addition to death and disease, tobacco use has enormous economic costs - to the tune of over $1000 per person per year in the U.S. - and exacerbates poverty.
If tobacco corporations went out of business tomorrow, it would be a huge economic boom, not a bust. Money spent on addictive products and health care could be applied elsewhere, productivity would dramatically increase, and people would enjoy longer, healthier lives.
Today, in spite of the progress over the past half century, one in five American deaths is still caused by tobacco. Using CDC figures, if tobacco use were taken out of the picture, the average lifespan of all Americans would increase by about 2 years. I feel confident that nearly everyone reading this has lost someone to tobacco. And yet, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and its affiliates work hard to ensure that the way is clear for the tobacco industry to addict new generations.
The inner workings of the Chamber are so secretive that they refuse to even reveal a list of their members, so it is difficult to know how the tobacco industry became their main focus. Since the Chamber must get their operating funds from somewhere, it is pretty easy to guess, though.
How can we encourage the Chamber to change their tobacco policy? CVS has shown one path - last month, the health care giant publicly withdrew its membership from the Chamber, citing their own tobacco views as conflicting with the Chamber's tobacco policy. Remember that in 2014, CVS made the decision to stop selling tobacco, so their departure continued their alignment with public health.
Corporations do not have to be in the health care business to benefit from fighting tobacco.
The costs of tobacco use to global society are massive. According to the most recent WHO report: "Given the significant tobacco-related burden of disease, researchers estimate that a total economic loss of about US$ 12.7 trillion over the next 20 years - or 1.3% of GDP annually - could be attributed to tobacco." Other estimates have put the societal cost per pack to over $200. That is money that could be redirected elsewhere, and help grow the economy here and abroad.
If the U.S. Chamber of Commerce really supports commerce, it needs to rethink its strategy.