From Ukraine to Uruguay, Moldova to the Philippines, the U.S. 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.
The U.S. Chamber’s work in support of the tobacco industry in recent years has emerged as a priority at the same time the industry has faced one of the most serious threats in its history. A global treaty, negotiated through the World Health Organization, mandates anti-smoking measures and also seeks to curb the influence of the tobacco industry in policy making. The treaty, which took effect in 2005, has been ratified by 179 countries; holdouts include Cuba, Haiti and the United States.
Facing a wave of new legislation around the world, the tobacco lobby has turned for help to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, with the weight of American business behind it. While the chamber’s global tobacco lobbying has been largely hidden from public view, its influence has been widely felt.
In the capitals of far-flung nations, the chamber lobbies alongside its foreign affiliates to beat back antismoking laws. And in Washington, Thomas J. Donohue, the chief executive of the chamber, has personally taken part in lobbying to defend the ability of the tobacco industry to sue under future international treaties, notably the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement being negotiated between the United States and several Pacific Rim nations.
“They represent the interests of the tobacco industry,” said Dr. Vera Luiza da Costa e Silva, the head of the Secretariat that oversees the W.H.O treaty, called the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. “They are putting their feet everywhere where there are stronger regulations coming up.”
The increasing global advocacy highlights the chamber’s enduring ties to the tobacco industry, which in years past centered on American regulation of cigarettes. A top executive at the tobacco giant Altria Group serves on the chamber’s board. Philip Morris International plays a leading role in the global campaign; one executive drafted a position paper used by a chamber affiliate in Brussels, while another accompanied a chamber executive to a meeting with the Philippine ambassador in Washington to lobby against a cigarette-tax increase. The cigarette makers’ payments to the chamber are not disclosed.
The chamber’s tobacco lobbying has led to confusion for many countries, Dr. da Costa e Silva said, adding “there is a misconception that the American chamber of commerce represents the government of the U.S.” In some places like Estonia, the lines are blurred. The United States ambassador there, Jeffrey Levine, serves as honorary president of the chamber’s local affiliate; the affiliate quoted Philip Morris in a publication outlining its priorities.
The tobacco industry has increasingly turned to international courts to challenge antismoking laws that countries have enacted after the passage of the W.H.O. treaty. Early this year, Michael R. Bloomberg and Bill Gates set up an international fund to fight such suits. Matthew L. Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, an advocacy group that administers the fund, called the chamber “the tobacco industry’s most formidable front group,” adding, “it pops up everywhere.”
In Washington, the U.S. Chamber’s tobacco lobbying has been visible in the negotiations over the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a priority of the Obama administration that recently received critical backing in Congress.
One of the more controversial proposals would expand the power of companies to sue countries if they violate trade rules. The U.S. Chamber has openly opposed plans to withhold such powers from tobacco companies, curbing their ability to challenge national antismoking laws. The chamber says on its website that “singling out tobacco” will “open a Pandora’s box as other governments go after their particular bêtes noires.” The issue is still unresolved. A spokesman for the United States trade representative said negotiators would ensure that governments “can implement regulations to protect public health” while also “ensuring that our farmers are not discriminated against.”
(Excerpted from New York Times 6/30/15)