By Emma Stockton
Last week, CVS Health did the right thing and cut ties with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. This announcement came in the wake of a series of New York Times articles revealing the Chamber’s role in a global lobbying effort to combat anti-smoking policies. CVS Health’s decision to leave the Chamber follows its 2014 decision to end sales of all tobacco products. CVS senior vice president David Palombi has explained, “CVS Health’s purpose is to help people on their path to better health, and we fundamentally believe tobacco use is in direct conflict with this purpose.”
The NYT series also highlighted a common misconception, that the Chamber of Commerce is part of the U.S. government. This confusion is not unfounded: U.S. government officials often affiliate with international divisions of the Chamber. For example, in Estonia, the U.S. ambassador serves as the honorary president of AmCham Estonia.
The President of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Thomas Donohue, responded to the NYT article and CVS Health’s departure in a NYT Letter to the Editor. Donohue justified the Chamber’s lobbying against anti-smoking laws by hiding behind a veil of intellectual property protectionism. This veneer is easily seen through. It is clear that the Chamber is protecting the interests of prominent tobacco industry representatives with which it is affiliated, such as Philip Morris, without regard to the public health implications of its actions. As pointed out by a follow-up NYT article, such a view of its stance would not explain why the lobbying association has taken stands against policies that have nothing to do with intellectual property: “The chamber has not said why it has opposed public health steps like restricting smoking in public places, which it called an ‘extreme’ measure when it was proposed in Moldova.”
In the past few years, the Chamber has lost a number of significant members due to its unpopular positions on important policy issues. In 2009, Apple left the Chamber over the Chamber’s opposition to climate-change initiatives that the Environmental Protection Agency set forth to lower greenhouse gas emissions. In 2011, Yahoo! left due to the Chamber’s support of the PROTECT IP act, a law that would have restricted internet freedom. In 2013, the environmentally sustainable construction company Skanska, left the Chamber due to their support of a chemical-industry led initiative to ban future government buildings from being ‘Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design’ (LEED) certified, which is contrary to Skanska’s business practices .
When asked about its departure, CVS Health’s Executive Vice President and Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Troyen Brennan, explained, “it was very difficult for us to remain as a member once the revelations about the Chamber’s overseas [opposition to anti-smoking policies] advocacy became clear.”
Hopefully CVS Health’s move will provide an example for other health care companies and inspire them to question their memberships in the Chamber as well.
Emma Stockton is an intern with Public Citizen.