Friday, August 21, 2015

U.S. Chamber of Commerce to the World: Thank you for smoking!

(Atkins Road with tobacco fields in the background. Near Cameron, N.C.)

SANFORD, N.C. - I grew up in tobacco country. We lived in a relatively small town, Sanford, N.C., but tobacco fields surrounded the town, and most people either worked in them or in the textile mills that also dotted the landscape.

I was a town boy, but most of my cousins were farmers and I primed, handed, and hung tobacco most summers, mostly hung (tobacco-laden sticks in the barn) since I was town-boy-slow out in the field. When my father and cousin Lewis rented a four-acre stand one summer, my brother John and I went through the entire process—from planting to harvesting.

(To the right, yours truly on the left with my brother John in a central North Carolina tobacco field) 

I remember the thick black gum that covered our hands at the end of the day, getting soaked from wet tobacco as I hung it in the upper reaches of the old wooden barns that today are merely relics of a past era, the bonhomie around the barn on priming (harvesting) days—nabs & RC Cola, and lots of chatter and gossip, black and white together, with R&B or country music from someone’s radio.

“They put so many chemicals in there today, I think that’s the reason it causes problems,” 90-year-old cousin Lewis told me during my visit to Sanford and neighboring Cameron this month.

Back in the early 1960s, we used to “top” and “sucker” tobacco—hand pull the plant’s flowery terminal bud and the growths that drain its energy. Nowadays chemicals are used to do this as well as perform other duties in growing tobacco.

Tobacco is indeed a culture as well as a plant, but science has proven that its use is dangerous to your health and that’s why local, state and federal governments have placed many restrictions on it.

The dangers of tobacco haven’t stopped the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, however, from waging a worldwide battle on behalf of the U.S. tobacco industry to keep other governments from placing restrictions on its use.

A front-page article by reporter Danny Hakim in the New York Times earlier this summer detailed the behind-the-scenes global campaign of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to keep people in other countries smoking their lungs away.

“They were against the tobacco tax increase,” Ukrainian lawmaker Hanna Hopko told Hakim. “They were against placing warning labels on cigarettes. This is just business as usual for them.”

One of every two Ukrainian men smokes, compared to just a little over one in every five in the United States. Yet the Ukrainian government—certainly friendly to the United States in the ongoing dispute with Russia over whether the U.S. or Russia will wield greater influence there—is so pro-tobacco that it took international legal action against Australia three years ago when that nation tried to restrict smoking.

The Ukrainian government worked hand-in-hand with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in taking that action. Such legal maneuvering is bound to become easier once the Obama-ballyhooed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement is fully implemented, including its provisions allowing corporations to sue nations that do anything to restrict trade.

Ironically, Ukraine exports no tobacco to Australia.

The New York Times article cited similar legal and related maneuvering in New Zealand, Nepal, Moldova, Uruguay and Jamaica. Prompting the U.S. Chamber campaign is a World Health Organization treaty with nearly 180 nations aimed at reducing tobacco usage.  The United States is not one of those nations.

The deepending influence of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce nationally and internationally in political as well as economic issues was the subject of another article by Simon Swartzman in Working In These Times this month.

Reviewing Alyssa Katz’ new book, The Influence Machine: The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Corporate Capture of American Life, Swartzman said the chamber “today protects some of the U.S.’s most viciously destructive corporations from any government regulation.”

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is the most powerful lobby organization in Washington, D.C., and not only unions are in its cross hairs but workers’ rights and, yes, consumer rights as well. And it does everything it can with its deep pockets to elect Republicans across the land. It has played active roles in the election of justices for the state Supreme Court and other courts across the South, from Virginia and North Carolina to Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.

Even in China has the influence of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and its foreign affiliated chambers been felt. When the Chinese government tried to impose restrictions of the use of temporary workers in factories some time back, the U.S. Chamber weighed in heavily and managed to get the legislation so watered down as to be meaningless.

“You don’t have choices,” the late comedian George Carlin once told us. “You have owners. They own everything. They own the corporations … the bought-and-paid-for (politicians). They’ve got the judges in their back pockets.”

Carlin the prophet never said truer words.

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