Why is the US Chamber of Commerce lobbying abroad for smoking?

The US Chamber of Commerce is lobbying against anti-smoking regulations abroad at a time when Americans are smoking less, and Congress is pushing a trade bill through that could limit the tobacco industry's influence overseas.

Ng Han Guan/AP
Dancers perform in front of anti-smoking banners displayed on the iconic Bird's Nest National Stadium on World No Tobacco Day in Beijing Sunday, May 31, 2015. On June 1, Beijing introduced new regulations requiring all indoor public places - and many outdoor public places - to be 100% smoke-free.

The United States Chamber of Commerce, the world’s largest trade group, is lobbying in foreign countries against smoking and tobacco regulations, The New York Times reported Tuesday.

The revelation comes less than a year after the federal government ceased payments to American tobacco farmers, and at a critical moment in US foreign trade policy.

It is not unusual for countries to effectively work both for and against the tobacco industry. Since the Great Depression, the US provided subsidies to tobacco growers through a quota system. The policy limited how much a farmer could grow, controlling supply and demand, and therefore allowing the tobacco growers to profit.

That quota system ended in 2004. To help farmers transition into the free market, the Federal government funded a $9.6 billion dollar buyout program – called the Transitional Tobacco Payment Program – over a decade, NPR reported.

The end of the buyout program in October 2014 coincided with the US Surgeon General’s report titled ‘50 Years of Progress’ which recapped five decades of anti-smoking regulation since a landmark report in 1964 by the US Surgeon General first cautioned the American people of the dangers of smoking.

Earlier this month, China passed regulations to make indoor areas, and some places outside, smoke-free. In China, the State Tobacco Monopoly Administration (STMA), the agency that runs the Chinese cigarette industry, is also the government agency tasked with dissuading consumers from smoking.  

“It is a challenge,” Li Baojiang, deputy head of the agency’s think tank, told The Christian Science Monitor.

Blake Brown, an agricultural economist at North Carolina State University, told NPR that even though Americans are smoking less, markets abroad are promising, and there's still demand for the coveted North Carolina tobacco leaf.

The US Chamber of Commerce has until recently focused its efforts on the American tobacco industry.

But in the last few years, members of the Chamber of Commerce, The New York Times reports, have written letters to leaders in Jamaica and Nepal, discouraging them from legislating for health warnings on packages. In Uruguay, a letter was sent urging retailers to keep cigarette displays in stores.

The president in Moldova was warned against “extreme measures,” according to The New York Times, which included common policies like restricting smoking in public places and limiting advertising for tobacco.

There are currently 180 nations taking part in the World Health Organization’s Tobacco Free Initiative. The United States is not one of them. China’s recent smoking regulations were to come into compliance with WHO regulations, as are efforts by most countries moving forward with tighter tobacco policies.

The Chamber of Commerce has been vocal about not including exclusions in the US trade agreement currently making headway in Congress. A key part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership is allowing US companies to sue nations that do not comply with trade laws. The Chamber of Commerce issued an open letter advocating for the inclusion of the tobacco industry, warning that “singling out one product will open a Pandora’s Box” of excluding other products “under the guise” of public health regulations.

“They represent the interests of the tobacco industry,” said Dr. Vera Luiza da Costa e Silva, the head of the Secretariat that oversees the WHO treaty, called the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, to The New York Times. “They are putting their feet everywhere where there are stronger regulations coming up.”

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