Attacking the source of a 6 million deaths per year epidemic: tobacco industry divestment

Dr. Bronwyn King

CEO, Tobacco Free Portfolios

I never would have imagined my work as a doctor would take me to corporate boardrooms across the globe, from Melbourne to London, Paris, New York and more. But then I never would have imagined I would be invested in the tobacco industry either.

In my early time as a doctor, I did a placement on the lung cancer ward of the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre in Melbourne. Despite being able to offer the very best medicine available, the majority of my patients died, many of them in their 50’s and 60’s, some as young as 40. It was shocking to bear witness to the true impact of tobacco. Whilst the treatment and care of patients is paramount, we must deal with the source of the problem – tobacco and the companies that manufacturer it.

Once I discovered that through my compulsory pension fund, I was invested in and actually owned a part of a several tobacco companies, I couldn’t just do nothing – I had to take action.

In my quest to disentangle the Australian pension sector from tobacco I’ve become well informed about tobacco and the extent of the ‘tobacco epidemic’, as it is referred to by the World Health Organisation. The numbers astound me. Six million deaths per year are attributed to tobacco and we are on track for one billion tobacco related deaths this century.

Many, including investors (both individual mums and dads as well as big financial institutions), aren’t actually aware of the extent of their tobacco exposure. Tobacco stocks are generally picked up in standard products. Often, tobacco companies have not been selected specifically for investment, but they are wrapped up within default investment products, so they still find a way into your portfolio.

I founded Tobacco Free Portfolios to collaboratively engage with leaders of the finance sector to encourage tobacco free investment. Finance executives have been alarmed also, at the scale of the tobacco problem and have deeply considered the role they can play in addressing this pressing global issue. One by one, they have acted and are now proud to lead organisations that are tobacco free. There are now 35 tobacco free pension funds in Australia – just over 40% of all funds. Each tobacco free announcement is met with resounding public support.

Tobacco Free Portfolios recently took a global step and we were delighted to work with the global insurance giant AXA who announced a tobacco free decision in May 2016, divesting $1.8B Euro of tobacco assets. More organisations are soon to follow suit. That is the way of the future. Affiliations with the tobacco industry are no longer wanted. There are very few individuals or organisations that actively seek to be a part of the tobacco industry. The associations are often so deep and longstanding that it can seem overwhelming – but they must be addressed and they must be undone.

Momentum for tobacco-free investment continues to grow steadily and I can confidently say that the conversation in Australian has largely moved from ‘should we go tobacco-free?’ to ‘how can we go tobacco-free?’ This is a pleasing development and a terrific case study, however, there is still much to do to accelerate action across the globe. The good news is that conversations I have in Paris, Singapore, London and New York are received with exactly the same concern as the conversations I have in Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra. The devastating impact of tobacco is felt everywhere on Earth. Tobacco is everyone’s problem, not just the doctors that provide the care and treatment. We should all feel obliged to do something about it and all those with investments, including those through compulsory pension schemes have a role to play.

It’s up to us to keep tobacco control on the agenda and in public dialogue. A tobacco free future that will allow our children and the generations to come to enjoy long and healthy lives should be our shared hope.

Further details available at www.tobaccofreeportfolios.org

This article will also be published as part of the conference materials for the 17th World Conference on Lung Cancer, to be held in Vienna, 4-7 December 2016.