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Facing the Wrong Way

The Chamber of Commerce is undercutting its trade agenda by supporting Big Tobacco.

Since early in 2011, much of our attention here at ASH has been focused on the nexus between trade and tobacco, in particular on the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP). If you have followed this issue, you’ve seen the involvement of public health groups, state officials, the Obama Administration, attorneys general, and Members of Congress.

Conspicuously missing from this list is the tobacco industry itself, which has kept an extremely low profile. In fact, a search for the word “transpacific” on the website of Philip Morris USA renders zero hits. Given that suing governments under trade agreements is one of the industry’s favorite tactics, and this public discussion is all about taking away that tactic, how can they stay quiet? There are two reasons.

First and most obvious, like every major industry, tobacco companies enjoy privileged, behind-closed-doors access to the office of the United States Trade Representative. Their representatives on trade advisory panels have access to negotiating texts (more so even than Members of Congress) and a direct line to the negotiators. So they don’t really need to argue in public.

The second reason is more puzzling. The tobacco industry doesn’t have to put up a fight because the U.S. Chamber of Commerce does it for them. This puts the weight of nearly every other major corporation behind Big Tobacco – we don’t know exactly how many, because the Chamber will not reveal its membership. Their reasoning is the age-old “ slippery slope” argument: if you exempt tobacco, next will be alcohol, then fast food, then pharmaceuticals.

The Chamber’s stance on tobacco and trade is wrong for two reasons. First, tobacco is unique in that it is the only consumer product that kills when used exactly as intended. It is simply immoral to advocate for its increased use.

But it is also poor tactics. The Chamber really wants a successful conclusion to the TPP, but there are so many perceived affronts to health, the environment, and consumer and human rights that it is in danger of foundering. Tobacco is a rallying point for groups who care about these issues. If the Chamber wants the TPP to float, it is time to jettison the tobacco industry.

Take action by tweeting “Exempt tobacco from trade agreements as the unique & deadly product it is, @USChamber. #StandWithHealth”