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CVS Health quits US chamber over stance on smoking

Chides US group for fighting laws

Tobacco-free signs in a Boston CVS.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/File

NEW YORK — CVS Health Corp. said Tuesday that it was resigning from the US Chamber of Commerce after revelations that the chamber and its foreign affiliates were undertaking a global lobbying campaign against antismoking laws.

CVS, which last year stopped selling tobacco products, said the lobbying ran counter to its mission to improve health.

“We were surprised to read recent press reports concerning the US Chamber of Commerce’s position on tobacco products outside the United States,” said David R. Palombi, a senior vice president. “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.

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“We believe the chamber has advocated for many important causes over the years, and we thank them for their leadership on these issues,” he added. “Given the leadership position we took last year in removing tobacco products from our stores, however, we have decided to withdraw our membership.”

Last week, The New York Times reported the chamber and its network of foreign affiliates had targeted restrictions on smoking in public spaces, bans on menthol and slim cigarettes, advertising restrictions, excise tax increases, and graphic warning labels — often in developing countries. The chamber’s efforts have put it in direct opposition to World Health Organization efforts to curb tobacco use. Thomas J. Donohue, head of the chamber, has been personally involved.

The campaign also runs counter to efforts by some of its members. Four health care companies that serve on its board — Anthem, Health Care Service Corp., Steward Health Care System of Boston, and the Indiana University Health system — all support antismoking programs.

The chamber has said that its efforts are about defending its members’ business interests.

“It’s unfortunate that a concerted misinformation campaign about the US Chamber’s position on smoking has resulted in a company leaving our organization,” the chamber said in a statement.

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“To be clear, the chamber does not support smoking and wants people to quit,” the statement said. “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.”

The chamber has not said why it has opposed public health steps like restricting smoking in public places, which it called “extreme” when it was proposed in Moldova.

Last week, seven Senate Democrats, including Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, called the chamber’s tobacco lobbying “craven and unconscionable.” Richard Branson, the billionaire British entrepreneur, said the chamber was on “the wrong side of history.”

And Tuesday, the head of the WHO weighed in: “By lobbying against well-established, widely accepted and evidence-based tobacco control public health policies, the US Chamber of Commerce undermines its own credibility on other issues,” said Dr. Margaret Chan.