US Chamber of Commerce -- A Smokescreen for Big Tobacco

07/16/2015 11:32 am ET Updated Jul 16, 2016

Co-authored by Lisa Gilbert and John Stewart

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, as the self-described "world's largest business organization," has a major influence in public policy both here at home and internationally. A report released today by Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, Public Citizen's U.S. Chamber Watch, Corporate Accountability International and several other organizations shows unequivocally how Big Tobacco has mobilized the Chamber's economic and political power to bully governments into blocking, delaying and weakening life-saving health policies worldwide.

The Chamber purports to represent the interests of 3 million businesses of all sizes, including the smallest mom and pop businesses. However, a February 2014 report by Public Citizen's U.S. Chamber Watch project, "The Gilded Chamber," found that more than half of the money the Chamber raised in 2012 came from just 64 anonymous corporate donors. With corporate cash flooding its coffers, it is unsurprising that the policy positions the Chamber takes are skewed toward helping those corporate interests, and away from protecting the Main Street businesses it uses as a shield for its actions.

The Chamber wields its economic clout aggressively, spending more on lobbying than any other interest group in the country. In addition, it has 116 American Chamber of Commerce affiliates, or AmChams, around the globe in 103 countries, and spends liberally there as well. The magnitude of the Chamber's spending as well as their active engagement internationally means their positions on public policies, including health issues, are often perceived as carrying the weight of the U.S. business community. As such, disregarding their positions can carry an implied economic threat and countries hesitate to do so.

Our report and a two-part New York Times investigation shows that, while the Chamber throws its weight around in many Global South countries to protect its corporate members' interests, Big Tobacco has also pushed it to adopt particularly aggressive and radical positions in order to undermine the cascade of public health laws being passed as a result of the success of the global tobacco treaty. In an initial reaction to this reporting, CVS Health has recently resigned from the Chamber, and a group of United States Senators released a public statement critical of them as well as sent letters to the member companies of the U.S. Chamber's Board of Directors asking about their positions on the Chamber's efforts to fight tobacco control measures.

For tobacco control advocates familiar with this deadly industry's tactics, the Chamber's work in this space comes as no surprise. Internal documents tell us that as the tobacco industry lost its public credibility, it began to use third parties to advocate on its behalf.

Case studies in our report, from Africa to Latin America, make it clear that Big Tobacco is doggedly pursuing this strategy with the U.S. Chamber and its affiliates in Global South countries. In countries the tobacco industry has targeted around the world, the Chamber is delivering threatening letters that cast doubt on the science behind tobacco control, exaggerating exaggerate the economic impacts repercussions of proven measures like tobacco taxation and crying wolf about explosions in illicit trade. In pursuing these actions, the Chamber and its AmCham affiliates are exporting well-documented tobacco industry tactics to block health laws around the globe.

And as the New York Times points out in its investigation, (and then advocates that countries resist in their recent editorial: Tarred by Tobacco), these tactics are in some cases drafted by Big Tobacco executives themselves.

Clearly, there is a deep conflict of interest between the Chamber's aggressiveness on tobacco and the interests of its health-related members. So why is the Chamber so brazenly pursuing the interests of Big Tobacco? The answer lies in the Chamber's deep financial and political ties with the tobacco industry. A top executive at the tobacco giant Altria Group, the former parent company of Philip Morris International (PMI) serves on the chamber's board. as does a representative of the former parent company of Philip Morris International (PMI.) The largest transnational tobacco corporations in the world such as PMI, British American Tobacco (BAT), Japan Tobacco International (JTI) and Imperial Tobacco hold memberships in more than 55 AmCham chapters.

Countries around the world should know that U.S. Chamber does not represent the U.S. government or people, nor is it representative of the broad swath of U.S. businesses. They should also continue implementing the global tobacco treaty's life-saving measures, particularly Article 5.3, which is geared towards protecting public health measures against just these kinds of industry tactics. And finally, the private sector should think twice about the reputational risk posed by remaining a part of a trade group that puts the profits of the world's deadliest industry before even its own members' interests.

Lisa Gilbert is the Director of Public Citizen's Congress Watch Division and manages their U.S. Chamberwatch project. John Stewart is the Deputy Campaigns Director for Corporate Accountability International.