Sunday, August 16, 2015

With 10 Health Care Executives on it Board, US Chamber of Commerce Defends Big Tobacco Abroad

Tobacco, especially smoked in cigarettes, is generally recognized by health care professionals as having health hazards that greatly outweigh its benefits to society.  Therefore, most health care organizations discourage tobacco use, and many have developed tobacco free policies.

However, the tobacco industry has its powerful supporters.  A recent NY Times investigative report, and a report entitled "Blowing Smoke for Big Tobacco," documented how the US Chamber of Commerce has defended the interests of tobacco companies overseas.  The apparent paradox here is that the leadership of the US Chamber of Commerce includes leaders of large health care organizations.  So far this paradox has not been explained by the parties involved.

How the US Chamber of Commerce Promotes Tobacco Interests Abroad

The NY Times Articles

On June 30, 2015, the NY Times published a wide ranging report on the pro-tobacco activities of the US Chamber of Commerce,

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.

Letters, emails and other documents from foreign governments, the chamber’s affiliates and antismoking groups, which were reviewed by The New York Times, show how the chamber has embraced the challenge, undertaking a three-pronged strategy in its global campaign to advance the interests of the tobacco industry.

In the capitals of far-flung nations, the chamber lobbies alongside its foreign affiliates to beat back antismoking laws.

In trade forums, the chamber pits countries against one another. The Ukrainian prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, recently revealed that his country’s case against Australia was prompted by a complaint from the U.S. Chamber.

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,...

The NYT asked the Chamber of Commerce for a response, and got only

The U.S. Chamber issued brief statements in response to inquiries. '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,' the statement said, adding, 'we’ve worked with a broad array of business organizations at home and abroad to defend these principles.'

The chamber declined to say if it supported any measures to curb smoking.

"Blowing Smoke for Big Tobacco"

Two weeks after the first NY Times article, a group of nine organizations including Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, Corporate Accountability International, and Public Citizen released a report on the US Chamber of Commerce pro-tobacco actions. A summary article in the Huffington Post written by representatives of the latter two organizations included,

Our report and a two-part New York Times investigation shows that, while the Chamber throws its weight around in many Global South countries to protect its corporate members' interests, Big Tobacco has also pushed it to adopt particularly aggressive and radical positions in order to undermine the cascade of public health laws being passed as a result of the success of the global tobacco treaty.

In particular,

For tobacco control advocates familiar with this deadly industry's tactics, the Chamber's work in this space comes as no surprise. Internal documents tell us that as the tobacco industry lost its public credibility, it began to use third parties to advocate on its behalf.

Case studies in our report, from Africa to Latin America, make it clear that Big Tobacco is doggedly pursuing this strategy with the U.S. Chamber and its affiliates in Global South countries. In countries the tobacco industry has targeted around the world, the Chamber is delivering threatening letters that cast doubt on the science behind tobacco control, exaggerating exaggerate the economic impacts repercussions of proven measures like tobacco taxation and crying wolf about explosions in illicit trade. In pursuing these actions, the Chamber and its AmCham affiliates are exporting well-documented tobacco industry tactics to block health laws around the globe.

And as the New York Times points out in its investigation, (and then advocates that countries resist in their recent editorial: Tarred by Tobacco), these tactics are in some cases drafted by Big Tobacco executives themselves.

Who Runs the US Chamber of Commerce?

A 2010 MotherJones article noted that the US Chamber of Commerce as having a "name that evokes Main Street and Little League teams," and its history of "taking a moderate, nonpartisan approach."  So who is responsible for the US Chamber of Commerce becoming a tobacco advocate, at least outside of the US?

First, the Chamber has become more the creature of the biggest corporations than small businesses.  The MotherJones article noted that recently

The Chamber's politics became synonymous with its biggest corporate donors.  [Chamber President Tom] Donohue established special accounts for companies that feared taking controversial public stands, allowing them to anonymously funnel money to the Chamber, which advocated on their behalf.


The Chamber claims that 96 percent of its members are small businesses, yet its self-seleted board includes just 6 representatives from small businesses, 1 from a local chamber, and 111 from large corporations.

Among these large corporations, tobacco corporations seem to be particularly influential.  The NY Times article noted,

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.

Yet the Chamber's governance also ostensibly includes health care viewpoints.  Its current board includes 10 member who are executives of large health care organizations:

- Richard Bagger Senior Vice President, Corporate Affairs & Strategic Market Access, Celgene Corporation, [biopharmaceutical company] Summit, NJ
- John Cannon Executive Vice President & Chief Administrative Officer, Health Care Service Corporation, [health insurance company] Chicago, IL
- Ken W. Cole Senior Vice President, Government Relations, Pfizer, Inc., [pharmaceutical company] Washington, DC
- Wayne S. DeVeydt Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer, Anthem, Inc., [health insurance company, formerly Wellpoint] Indianapolis, IN
- Ralph de la Torre, MD Chairman and CEO, Steward Health Care System LLC, [for-profit hospital system, owned by Cerberus Capital Management] Boston, MA
- Fuad El-Hibri Executive Chairman, Emergent BioSolutions Inc. [biopharmaceutical company] Gaithersburg, MD
- Daniel F. Evans, Jr. President & Chief Executive Officer, Indiana University Health, [non-profit hospital system] Indianapolis, IN
- Gregory Irace President and Chief Executive Officer, Sanofi US Services Inc., [US subsidiary of French pharmaceutical company] Bridgewater, NJ
- Paul J. Klaassen Founder, Sunrise Senior Living, Inc., [for-profit provider of nursing care, hospice care, etc] Arlington, VA
- Elaine R. Leavenworth Senior Vice President, Chief Marketing and External Affairs Officer, Abbott Laboratories, [pharmaceutical and device company] Abbott Park, IL

These organizations ostensibly are all about promoting or sustaining individual or population health.  Executives of these organizations serving on the board of the US Chamber of Commerce are responsible for the governance and stewardship of the Chamber.  How could they square the missions of the organizations which the lead, and their responsibility for the Chamber's pro-tobacco stance?

The Health Care Organizations Dodge the Question

The answer to that question is elusive.

The NY Times article stated,

It is not clear how the chamber’s campaign reflects the interests of its broader membership, which includes technology companies like Google, pharmaceutical giants like Pfizer and health insurers like Anthem.

An accompanying NY Times editorial added,

Health insurance and hospital companies that are members of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce find themselves in an uncomfortable situation. Publicly, these companies support policies designed to reduce smoking, but the chamber, as Danny Hakim recently reported, has opposed anti-smoking measures around the world.

The controversy appears to have surprised health-related businesses like Anthem, one of the nation’s biggest health insurers, and Steward Health Care Systems of Boston, which have executives on the board of the chamber. 'If the chamber is in fact advocating for increased smoking, we do not agree with them on this public health issue,' a spokeswoman for Steward said in a statement to The Times.

In an article in the Indianapolis Business Journal, J K Wall recounted how he tried to get a substantive response to the NY Times article from Indiana University Health, whose President is on the Chamber board,

Indiana University Health CEO Dan Evans is one of the most anti-smoking health care executives I know.

Just a few months after I started covering health care for IBJ in 2007, Evans told me in an interview that Indiana employees 'should snatch the cigarettes out of their co-workers mouths and say, ‘Hey, you’re costing me money!’'

However, Evans was not available, and the only response was this statement from a spokesperson

We are proud of the many programs we have in place for smoking prevention and cessation, as well as health promotion and screenings for our team members, patients and members of the community. IU Health has been and will continue to be a leader in Indiana to prevent and curtail the use of tobacco products.

IU Health is a member of many diverse state and national organizations to support our public policy goals including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Indiana State Chamber of Commerce. We are talking with U.S. Chamber leadership about the facts surrounding recent stories in the NY Times and will strongly encourage the U.S. Chamber to review its international programs to ensure they are consistent with its own stated policy to oppose smoking and promote wellness.

Similarly, a follow up story in the New York Times documented this response from Anthem, (formerly Wellpoint), whose Executive Vice President and CFO is on the Chamber board,

Anthem said it was 'dedicated to helping people quit smoking and has led the charge to end tobacco use.'

'Anthem has shared its strong, longstanding position with the chamber and will continue to address our concerns with the chamber directly,' the statement said.

Likewise, the Times noted this response from

Greg Thompson, a spokesman for the Health Care Service Corporation, said in a statement last week: 'We are convinced that ending smoking may help people live longer, enjoy a better quality of life and reduce costs in our health care system.'

'This is a point of view we have advocated for decades and made clear to organizations that we support.'

Those seem to be the only public responses from companies whose leadership is represented on the Chamber of Commerce board. They all ignored the main issue.  None of them seemed informed by the role their companies' executives on the Chamber of Commerce board play.  None of the executives or the companies for whom they worked acknowledged any accountability for the Board's vigorous foreign campaign of pro-tobacco activities.

The Times did note that Chamber of Commerce member CVS, which is not specifically represented on the Chamber board, and which recently stopped selling tobacco products, withdrew from Chamber membership. But as a simply a member of the Chamber, it had little direct responsibility for the Chamber's actions.


US health care is increasingly dominated by large organizations.  Most of these organizations like to portray themselves as warm and fuzzy supporters of individual and population health.  For example, Pfizer has a statement of responsibility which begins

As a member of today’s rapidly changing global community, we are striving to adapt to the evolving needs of society and contribute to the overall health and wellness of our world.

Anthem's statement includes

Anthem is dedicated to delivering better care to our members, providing greater value to our customers and helping improve the health of our communities.

Yet on Health Care Renewal, we have documented actions by leaders of health care organizations that directly contradict their lofty mission statements, and may have threatened patients' or the public's health.

In its aggressive international promotion of tobacco interests, the US Chamber of Commerce appears to be promoting the use of products that directly threaten individual's and the public's health.  Even though the Chamber protested that it was merely reaching out

to governments around the world to urge them to avoid measures that discriminate against particular companies or industries, undermine their trademarks or brands...

their protestation ignored how tobacco is a different product than that of nearly all industries.  It seems inherently dangerous to patient's the and public's health even when used as intended, and has no known health or societal benefits that even partially compensate for its risks.  Therefore, what is the argument not to discriminate those who make and promote such an inherently dangerous product from those who make products that do not threaten health, or provide obvious benefits that may compensate for their risks?

It is obvious why tobacco companies might want the Chamber's support.  What, however, could be the rationale for executives of corporations pledge to promote health to preside over the international promotion of tobacco?

The executives on the Chamber board, and their companies have not as yet even tried to provide an answer.

Thus, in the absence of better responses, in my humble opinion the presence of health care executives on the US Chamber of Commerce board is another example - an important one - of mission-hostile actions by top leaders of US health care organizations.

As we have said far too many times - without much impact so far, unfortunately - true health care reform would put in place leadership that understands the health care context, upholds health care professionals' values, and puts patients' and the public's health ahead of extraneous, particularly short-term financial concerns. We need health care governance that holds health care leaders accountable, and ensures their transparency, integrity and honesty.

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