The political Rottweiler of American business, the United States Chamber of Commerce, has been losing fans.
On Tuesday, pharmaceutical mega-chain CVS quit the chamber, citing a recent New York Times expose about its foreign affiliates lobbying against tobacco regulations around the world, from bans on cigarette advertisements to excise tax hikes and restrictions on smoking in public.
Last year, CVS stopped selling tobacco, losing $2 billion in annual sales to overhaul its image to be more health-oriented. At the same time, the Rhode Island-based drugstore chain, the second largest in the country, contributed $750,000 to the chamber as its representatives lobbied against anti-smoking laws in Moldova, New Zealand and Uruguay, reported CNN Money.
"We were surprised to read recent press reports concerning the US Chamber of Commerce's position on tobacco products outside the United States," said CVS Senior Vice President David Palombi in a statement cited in reports. "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 chamber said CVS's departure was unfortunate and labeled the New York Times' coverage as part of a misinformation campaign.
"To be clear, the Chamber does not support smoking and wants people to quit," said a chamber statement. "We promote wellness nationally and globally and we sponsor smoking cessation plans for our own employees. At the same time, we support protecting the intellectual property and trademarks of all legal products in all industries and oppose singling out certain industries for discriminatory treatment."
CVS acknowledged the Chamber of Commerce's heft on Capitol Hill, where it represents corporate interests that generally align with conservative Republicans. But Palombi also took a parting shot as he walked out the door.
"We believe the chamber has advocated for many important causes over the years, and we thank them for their leadership on these issues," said Palombi's statement. "Given the leadership position we took last year in removing tobacco products from our stores, however, we have decided to withdraw our membership in the chamber."
The chamber spends almost $20 million, more on lobbying than any other Washington interest group, underwriting candidates and engaging the resources of massive companies to sway lawmakers and regulators, according to OpenSecrets.org.
For all its vaunted strength, however, the chamber isn't omnipotent.
In 2009, the Washington Post revealed that the chamber was looking to hire an economist to conduct a study to reach the preordained conclusion — damn the evidence — that the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, was hurting the American economy. "The job qualifications…include the ability to know the outcome of the study before the study begins," the Post wrote.
A few years ago, Yahoo! quit the chamber due to differing positions on intellectual property. In 2009, Apple and a host of other companies left over disagreements concerning the chamber's support for climate change deniers.
The chamber claims to represent 3 million businesses, but Mother Jones ran a story a few years ago suggesting Donohue has been inflating its membership. The left-leaning magazine estimated the chamber really had around 300,000 members.
"For some reason, the media continues to use that 3 million member figure and it's just plain wrong," said the president the nonpartisan Center for Political Accountability, Bruce Freed, in an interview with VICE News. "It allows the chamber to be a blowfish — much larger than it really is."
It's clear why CVS left the chamber, said Freed. But he also chided the drugstore chain for not knowing that the chamber was trying to gut smoking rules in former Soviet republics, South Pacific Islands and South America.
"They should have known about it," said Freed. "The problem is, companies do not request or seek the type of information they need about what their association is doing and how their money is being used."
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