Chamber Of Commerce Defends Its Defense Of Tobacco, Fights Obama On OT

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is having itself a week in the headlines as it battles the Obama administration’s proposal to expand overtime pay while its hard lobbying on behalf of tobacco companies in overseas markets has come under scrutiny in the New York Times and elsewhere.

“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,” Danny Hakim reported in the New York Times Tuesday.



The organization — a nonprofit with more than three million members, 100 affiliates around the world and annual revenue of $165 million — “spends more on lobbying than any other interest group in America,” Hakim reports.

It’s got plenty of company, of course, on the well-blazed path up the Hill.

“There may have been a day when the heads of big trade associations in Washington resembled statesmen. It ended sometime before 1997, when Tom Donohue took over as president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce,” writes Justin Fox in a Bloomberg View piece that traces the roots of the organization to William Howard Taft’s desire for a counterpoint to the rising labor movement in 1912.

“In the modern era, people with jobs such as Donohue's are expected to operate as political entrepreneurs — identifying opportunities, squeezing out competitors and relentlessly raising money.”

After a few ad hominem jabs at the 77-year old Brooklyn-born Irish American (“who's paid $3.7 million a year in part to promote tobacco and its inevitable outcome, lung cancer”), Niall O'Dowd points out on Irish Central that Donohue warned Irish leader Enda Kenny in March that Ireland’s tobacco packaging ban was a “denial of trademark rights.”

O’Dowd continues: “Last week he was at it again writing to the Irish government, ‘We understand that your Cabinet is poised to consider legislation that would impose plain packaging requirements on tobacco products’…. He said the measure would ‘undercut well-established protections for intellectual property’ without evidence of its effectiveness.”

That is the gist of the message the Chamber is taking overseas — it’s all about protecting intellectual property.

“The Chamber's goals very clearly go against global tobacco-reduction objectives,” writes Jacob Kastrenakes for The Verge. “Around 170 countries have approved tobacco-control measures as part of a World Health Organization public health treaty. The U.S. has its own goals, which include reducing tobacco usage by adults and teens, establishing new state laws prohibiting smoking in public areas, and increasing tobacco taxes.”

At 6:15 last night, the Chamber posted on its blog: “Recent articles in the New York Times have falsely alleged that the U.S. Chamber is working around the world to promote the use of tobacco. Let's be very clear: This organization is not in the business of promoting cigarette smoking at home or abroad, period.”

However, it said: “While we do not support tobacco use, we still believe that governments should uphold intellectual property rights, adhere to international commitments, and promulgate rules that are sensible and effective. It is these concerns that have been the focus of our advocacy efforts on behalf of this and many other industries.”

In a follow-up story posted last night, Hakim points out that the Chamber of Commerce board includes executives from four leading healthcare organizations. Only one, Steward Health Care System of Boston, responded to a request for comment.

“Smoking is one of the leading causes of death,” a spokeswoman for Steward said in a statement. “If the chamber is in fact advocating for increased smoking we do not agree with them on this public health issue.”

On Tuesday, the Chamber issued a release opposing the Obama administration’s overtime proposal, saying it not only “will negatively impact small businesses and drastically limit employment opportunities” but also have a negative impact on many employees. “This change is another example of the administration being completely divorced from reality,” it stated.

“Right now, too many Americans are working long days for less pay than they deserve,” the President wrote in an op-ed for The Huffington Post. “That's partly because we've failed to update overtime regulations for years.”

The Chamber is not alone in its opposition to the proposal. Other business groups such as the National Retail Federation and the National Federation of Independent Business also oppose it as do — no surprise — congressional Republicans.

There are unconfirmed reports, however, that most members of all factions have agreed to take a long weekend off. See you Monday.

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