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U.S. Chamber of Commerce helps fight anti-smoking policies abroad, New York Times reports

“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,” writes Danny Hakim.

An Indian fisherman smoking a cigarette in Karachi, Pakistan.
REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has been actively — and often effectively — helping the tobacco industry block efforts in countries around the world to reduce the health and economic burdens of smoking, according to the disturbing findings of an investigative article published today in the New York Times.

Writes Times reporter Danny Hakim:

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.

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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.

As Hakim explains, the chamber is a private, nonprofit organization with more than 3 million members and annual revenues of $165 million. It spends more on lobbying than any other U.S. interest group.

“While the chamber has local outposts across the United States, it also has more than 100 affiliates around the world,” Hakim adds. “Foreign branches pay dues and typically hew to the U.S. Chamber’s strategy, often advancing it on the ground. Members include both American and foreign businesses, a symbiotic relationship that magnifies the chamber’s clout.”

A deadly epidemic

That the American business community would be abetting the tobacco industry in its efforts to weaken anti-smoking policies abroad is incredibly cynical — and infuriating. 

The devastation that tobacco-related illnesses inflict on individuals, families and communities cannot be overstated.

Globally, more than 6 million people die each year from tobacco-related deaths — a number that is expected to rise to 8 million by 2030, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). More than 80 percent of those deaths are in low- and middle-income countries — areas of the world where the U.S. Chamber has focused much of its pro-tobacco efforts.

WHO calls tobacco-related illnesses “an epidemic” and “one of the biggest public health threats the world has ever faced.”

In many countries, it’s also one of the leading causes of poverty. “Many studies have shown that in the poorest households in some low- and middle-income countries, more than 10% of total household expenditure is on tobacco,” WHO officials point out. “This means that these families have less money to spend on such basic items as food, education and health care.”

Stalling progress 

Here is one of the examples Hakim provides to illustrate how the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has inserted itself into the anti-tobacco public health efforts of other countries:

In Nepal, the health ministry proposed a law last year to increase the size of graphic warning labels from covering three-fourths of a cigarette pack to 90 percent. Countries like Nepal that have ratified the W.H.O. treaty are supposed to take steps to make cigarette packs less appealing.

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Not long afterward, one of Nepal’s top officials, Lilamani Poudel, said he received an email from a representative of the chamber’s local affiliate in the country, warning that the proposal “would negate foreign investment” and “invite instability.”

In January, the U.S. Chamber itself weighed in. In a letter to Nepal’s deputy prime minister, a senior vice president at the chamber, Tami Overby, wrote that she was “not aware of any science-based evidence” that larger warning labels “will have any discernible impact on reducing or discouraging tobacco use.”

A 2013 Harvard study found that graphic warning labels “play a lifesaving role in highlighting the dangers of smoking and encouraging smokers to quit.”

While Nepal eventually mandated the change in warning labels, cigarette companies filed for an extension and compliance has stalled.

“Since we have to focus on responding to the devastating earthquake, we have not been able to monitor the state of law enforcement effectively,” said Shanta Bahadur Shrestha, a senior health ministry official.

You can read Hakim’s article on the New York Times’ website. Warning: Doing so may be hazardous to your ability to control your anger.