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Posted: 2015-07-04 16:00:00

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.

Mr. Hakim’s report found that the chamber has fought tobacco packaging, restrictions on smoking in public spaces, and taxes on cigarettes in countries like the Philippines, Jamaica, Nepal and Moldova. It has also pushed for provisions in trade agreements that could be used by tobacco companies to demand compensation for anti-smoking laws countries adopt.

Some members of the chamber are probably not aware of every lobbying campaign the organization is running around the world. And most members focus on the issues they care about most. For American health insurers and hospitals, tobacco use in foreign countries is probably a very low priority relative to, say, the health care reform law. After all, most of these businesses do not sell insurance or run hospitals abroad.

By contrast, selling cigarettes in foreign countries, especially fast-growing developing nations with young populations, is a high priority for big tobacco companies. These businesses have played a big role in getting the chamber to act on their behalf, including by disingenuously characterizing their fight against policies on cigarette packaging as a fight to protect intellectual property rights.

The World Health Organization estimates that developing countries will account for 70 percent of the 8.4 million people who die because of smoking-related illnesses by 2020.

Now that it is clear what kind of pro-tobacco advocacy the chamber is carrying out, the organization’s members, particularly in the health care industry, ought to speak out. Do they want their names associated with such a blatant attempt to stop governments in developing countries from enacting sensible public health policies?

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