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CVS Health leaves U.S. Chamber of Commerce

CVS announced Tuesday it would leave the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Pharmacy giant CVS Health announced Tuesday that it would end its membership in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce over the group's stance on tobacco deregulation.

CVS, which became the first major drug store to remove cigarettes and other tobacco products from all of its stores last year, said it was "surprised" by reports that the Chamber had lobbied foreign governments to ease restrictions on tobacco sales.

"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," CVS spokesman David Palombi said in a statement.

The New York Times reported last week that the Chamber, the nation's largest trade group, was attacking foreign restrictions on smoking in public places, bans on menthol and slim cigarettes and tobacco advertising prohibitions.

That drew criticism from anti-smoking groups and some members of Congress. Seven Democratic senators last week, including Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) and Al Franken (Minn.), called the Chamber's efforts "craven and inconsolable" and warned that, "companies should be concerned that their good name is sullied in efforts to strike down public health protections."

Blumenthal said in a statement Tuesday that CVS had made the right decision. "We urge other members to stand up against the Chamber’s deceptive and dismaying sell out to Big Tobacco and emulate CVS," he said.

The Chamber in a statement called CVS's departure "unfortunate" and said the reports about its tobacco positions were part of a "concerted misinformation campaign."

"To be clear, the Chamber does not support smoking and wants people to quit," a Chamber spokesperson said in a statement. "We promote wellness nationally and globally and we sponsor smoking cessation plans for our own employees. 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."

This isn't the first time the Chamber has found itself at odds with its members over policy positions. Apple and Nike left the Chamber in recent years over the group's opposition to climate change initiatives.

Yahoo! split with the Chamber in 2011 after it balked at the lobbying group's stance toward intellectual property legislation, which the Chamber supported and Yahoo! opposed.

CVS said in 2014 that removing tobacco products would cost the company $2 billion a year in lost sales, but hoped the move would bolster its image as a health services provider rather than a basic drug store.

"We believe the Chamber has advocated for many important causes over the years, and we thank them for their leadership on these issues," Palombi, the CVS spokesman, said in a statement. "Given the leadership position we took last year in removing tobacco products from our stores, however, we have decided to withdraw our membership in the Chamber."