CVS takes high road in clash with business group

CVS Health did something the other day that we don't see enough in the business world.

It stood up for its principles.

The pharmacy giant announced it was quitting the U.S. Chamber of Commerce after reports that the influential business organization was lobbying against anti-smoking laws around the world.

CVS said last year that it would no longer sell tobacco products in its stores. The company declared, and I'm paraphrasing here, that it's pretty hypocritical for a healthcare firm to profit from a product that kills people.

"We were surprised to read recent press reports concerning the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's position on tobacco products outside the United States," said Michael DeAngelis, a CVS spokesman.

"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."

OK, props to CVS for not just talking the talk. It's a big deal for a company to turn its back on the country's most powerful business lobby, particularly for such an honorable purpose.

Even so, it's surprising that it doesn't happen more often.

"The chamber is on the wrong side of most public-policy fights," said Lisa Gilbert, director of Public Citizen's Congress Watch division. "Almost everything that comes to light about its lobbying would embarrass at least some members."

Apple and Nike left the chamber in 2009 because of the organization's opposition to climate-change regulation. But little has changed since then.

The chamber's "Policy Priorities for 2015" states that it's against "efforts to regulate greenhouse gas emissions through existing environmental statutes, including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act."

Instead, the chamber wants to see regulation of industrial emissions "based on sound science," though it doesn't specify what that may be.

Any company that touts itself as a responsible steward of the planet — and that's most companies — should be deeply ashamed to be associated with any entity actively seeking to undo some of our most important environmental protections.

I'd list a few of those companies here, but I can't. While the chamber proudly says it represents the interests of more than 3 million businesses, it refuses to identify a single one of them.

Nor does it disclose which companies give it money to fund its political activities. But it is required to disclose its spending. And it does a lot of that.

The chamber was Washington's top lobbyist in the first quarter of this year, spending nearly $14 million to have its way with Congress and federal agencies, according to the watchdog site MapLight.org. The chamber's Institute for Legal Reform spent an additional $6 million.

Blair Latoff Holmes, a chamber spokeswoman, told me that the chamber isn't legally required to disclose information about donors, so it doesn't. She declined to comment on why it doesn't identify its members.

Public Citizen issued a study last year reporting that about 94% of the chamber's contributions came from about 1,500 companies and organizations. Nearly a third of the chamber's donations — about $48 million — came from just 16 contributors, the study found.

That's a lot of anonymous political clout for a relative handful of businesses.

On the big issues, it's clear why companies would join the chamber. What business wouldn't want to pay less in taxes, for example, or face less government oversight? There's nothing unethical or unusual about having a lobbyist represent such interests.

But the U.S. Chamber also provides cover for a corporate policy agenda that, if held directly accountable, likely would be difficult for many companies to explain to their customers, employees and shareholders.

Here, for instance, are some other tidbits from the chamber's priorities:

• The "impact on industry" must be taken into account when it comes to safeguarding oceans and coasts, and the group will oppose "efforts to unnecessarily expand the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act."

• Consumers should never be allowed to purchase cheaper prescription drugs from "foreign nations that implement price controls," which is most of them.

• Lawmakers must be prevented from raising the federal minimum wage or requiring that employers give workers paid sick leave.

• "Self-regulation" by businesses is the best way to protect consumer privacy.

And my personal favorite: The chamber opposes "over-criminalization of corporate conduct." Boys will be boys, apparently.

Holmes, the chamber spokesman, declined to elaborate on the group's political goals.

After CVS hit the road, the chamber issued a statement saying it was the victim of a "concerted misinformation campaign."

"We promote wellness nationally and globally, and we sponsor smoking cessation plans for our own employees," it 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."

Translation: We're into health as much as anyone but we'll fight to protect cigarette makers' right to kill you.

They're just as committed to ensuring that their members' financial interests come before clean water, safe air, affordable medications and living wages.

No wonder the chamber's members don't want their names known.

Who'd want to admit that this is what they stand for?

David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV and followed on Twitter @Davidlaz. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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