U.S. Chamber Of Commerce: Lobbying Hard For Big Tobacco Worldwide

The term “Chamber of Commerce” plants visions of a quaint, local organization helping hang banners in the town square at Christmas time, or sponsoring youth groups in a Fourth of July parade during warmer seasons. Realistically, however, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is the nation’s largest business and commerce trade group. And among all their other lobbying work, the Chamber of Commerce has become one of the world’s biggest advocates for Big Tobacco, pushing that industry’s interests globally.

The New York Times reports today on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s extensive efforts overseas, where it’s doing everything in its power to torpedo other nations’ anti-tobacco efforts.

Big tobacco is, after all, big business — and the Chamber of Commerce exists to promote business interests. From one point of view, it’s a natural fit. And so the organization has taken on a global effort in order to bolster the interests of tobacco companies against other nations’ attempts to curtail the industry.

It’s a tricky time for the tobacco industry, as the NYT points out. A global treaty, negotiated through the World Health Organization, has pushed anti-smoking and anti-tobacco measures worldwide. The treaty went into effect ten years ago and so far there are 179 signatory nations — but the United States, built in so many ways on the existence of tobacco farming, is not among them.

In that intervening decade, many of the signatory nations have gotten moving on their promised anti-smoking legislation — and that’s where lobbying from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and its international partners, comes in.

One of the biggest examples of the Chamber’s intervention that the NYT cites is one that comedian John Oliver delved into earlier this year: Ukraine’s unexpected support of Philip Morris in a claim the company made against Australia a few years ago.

In their filings, Ukraine claimed that Australia’s plain packaging law would hurt Ukrainian exports. If Ukraine had ever exported tobacco to Australia, that might make sense — but they don’t. “Ukraine is inserting themselves into something they have nothing to do with,” as Oliver described it in February. “They’re taking the Kanye West approach to international trade disputes.”

But of course Ukraine did not act without encouragement, and that encouragement came from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. This March, the NYT reports, Ukraine’s parliament convened a hearing to try and sort out why they were involved in a lawsuit against Australia.

“When it came time to defend the tobacco industry, a man named Taras Kachka spoke up,” the Times writes. “He argued that several ‘fantastic tobacco companies’ had bought up Soviet-era factories and modernized them, and now they were exporting tobacco to many other countries. It was in Ukraine’s national interest, he said, to support investors in the country, even though they do not sell tobacco to Australia.”

The speaker, as the NYT explains, was neither a tobacco industry member nor lobbyist. He was the head of a Ukranian affiliate of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. And indeed, the Ukranian prime minister recently revealed that Ukraine’s case against Australia was in fact prompted by a complaint from the Chamber.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce not only meddles in existing legislative processes around the world in favor of tobacco companies, but also works to maintain their interests in future agreements as well. The current head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has lobbied extensively to make sure that as part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the pending trade agreement the U.S. is poised to sign with a dozen Pacific Rim nations, that tobacco companies retain their rights to sue governments when they feel they are being too strongly impinged upon.

That’s not a hypothetical scenario: Since 2010, Philip Morris has sued Uruguay, Australia, and the U.K. as well as making legal threats against other, smaller nations like Togo, Moldova, and Nepal.

The Chamber has sent letters and reports to several nations, taking different approaches. To smaller or less wealthy nations, the letters might be an implicit threat for U.S. businesses to take their ball and go home.

“The U.S. Chamber of commerce is committed to promoting a robust and growing trade and investment relationship with Jamaica,” reads a 2013 letter to that nation’s Prime Minister. “For this to occur, the decisions made by public policymakers must have a sound basis in science and reflect global best practice.”

In other countries, the Chamber has taken alternate approaches. A 2014 letter to New Zealand’s parliament takes a different tactic, claiming that nation’s plans to implement plain packaging — which strips branding and logos from the exterior of tobacco products and replaces it with health warnings — are in violation of trademark and intellectual property laws. That’s the same approach that Philip Morris took in its 2011 lawsuit against Australia.

Of course, not everyone involved with the Chamber of Commerce is necessarily on board with this plan. The organization has over three million member companies, including health insurers and pharmaceutical companies, as well as 21st century tech giants that tend to promote healthful living.

When the Times asked the Chamber of Commerce for a statement, the organization replied: “The Chamber regularly reaches out to governments around the world to urge them to avoid measures that discriminate against particular companies or industries, undermine their trademarks or brands, or destroy their intellectual property. We’ve worked with a broad array of business organizations at home and abroad to defend these principles.”

American tobacco companies might be feeling the strain as other countries try their hardest to enact anti-smoking measures, but American lobbying exports seem to be doing just fine.

U.S. Chamber of Commerce Works Globally to Fight Antismoking Measures [New York Times]