Removing unknowing financial investments from the tobacco industry

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Published: 27 Nov 2015
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Dr Bronwyn King - Tobacco Free Portfolios, Melbourne, Australia

Dr King talks to ecancertv at the World Cancer Leaders Summit in Istanbul, Turkey, urging people to look into their pension plans with the goal of cutting out investments in tobacco. 

Dr King discusses her own personal experiences and some of the issues she has encountered when removing her pension investments from the tobacco industry.

She also advises on how to better inform a population's investments, by offering advice for pension plans that don't invest in tobacco.

Expanding on some of the successes Australia has made the steps being made in the fight to become tobacco free. 

World Cancer Leaders’ Summit 2015

Removing unknowing financial investments from the tobacco industry

Dr Bronwyn King - Tobacco Free Portfolios, Melbourne, Australia

Bronwyn, what is a radiation oncologist doing with spending time away from patients and talking about tobacco free portfolios?

About five years ago I discovered completely by accident that some of my pension fund was being invested in the tobacco industry.


Well for me it was horror because by that stage I’d been a cancer doctor for ten years and I had watched hundreds and hundreds of patients die, sadly, from tobacco related illness. So I was very aware of the devastating impact of tobacco so for me it was just such a terrible fit to think that my money was in fact being invested in that industry.

I’m amazed and delighted to say that since that time you’ve actually persuaded a very significant minority of investment portfolios in Australia to be tobacco free.

I must say I haven’t done it all on my own and there have been some great supporters along the way. But in Australia the current status is that there are 33 tobacco free pension funds and they have total assets worth about $500 billion so these are big.

What proportion of the market is that?

It’s about 38% of the market in Australia if you exclude the very small self-managed super-funds. So of the big institutional investors it’s 38% and it’s rapidly becoming a new mainstream expected standard in Australia. I’m working with at least another 50% of the market as well and having very good conversations. So it used to be a difficult conversation, it’s not so difficult anymore in Australia.

Now, Australia succeeded in getting plain packaging for cigarettes, now you’re making big headway in getting the portfolios free of tobacco.

That’s right and, look, I’ve been extremely fortunate in Australia to really stand on the shoulders of some great leaders in tobacco control.

What’s happening elsewhere in the world because that is important, isn’t it?

That’s absolutely right. In Australia we’re very lucky that there have been so many great leaders in tobacco that we have a situation at the moment where only 12% of our population smokes, that’s dropping all of the time. There’s still a long way to go and some populations within Australia the smoking rate is in fact much higher, for example in our indigenous population we have a lot more work to do. But you’re right, this isn’t just a problem in one country, tobacco is a catastrophic problem around the world and these initiatives need to be seriously considered in other places.

I know you’re having conversations in the United Kingdom, what are your suggestions for cancer clinicians and members of the public to do to try and change this rather scary situation where your pension fund might well be invested in the very thing that’s going to kill you?

My advice to people as, I guess, individuals is firstly to look at their own pension fund and just ask the question – what is happening with your money. As a cancer doctor, for me it was just an exquisitely bad fit for my money to be invested in tobacco so cancer clinicians, in fact, have a lot of power and they need to ask that question to their fund. If lots of people ask that question then the fund will be more motivated to look at it. But also there is a role to play for the big organisations so the big peak bodies for health that exist in all countries around the world, all of them need to have these conversations with their governments, with their government’s sovereign wealth funds and ensure that they are tobacco free.

And if you make a success with tobacco there are other factors causing cancer and other forms of ill health that you could target eventually in the future too.

I’m really very focussed on tobacco. Tobacco, for me, is just the one thing that it’s so black and white, zero is the only safe number of cigarettes a human being can smoke. The scale of the problem is profound with an estimated six million deaths from tobacco this year in 2015 and the industry doesn’t respond well to engagement to do better things. So engagement is considered quite futile with the tobacco industry. So for those reasons tobacco is really a very clear-cut situation so an exception does need to be made for tobacco. So I’m really looking at making that the new baseline mainstream expected standard for pension funds around the world.

So if engagement with the tobacco industry is ineffective then you’re saying that taking away some of the source of their money is a good idea?

Many big financial institutions want to be good corporate citizens, they want to engage with the companies where they own stock and they want to persuade those companies to do better things. In virtually all circumstances engagement is an excellent technique. However, an exception is required for the tobacco industry because engagement is futile. The only acceptable outcome is that the tobacco industry doesn’t exist so for that reason I put forward to people that it’s worthwhile seriously considering divesting their tobacco shares.

To sum up, how would you leave the world’s cancer clinicians and other cancer professionals with key messages on this issue?

My key message for cancer professionals around the world is to use the stories that they have about their patients and the true experience of tobacco, the true impact that tobacco has on individuals and the community, use those experiences to drive change. The change that I would love to promote is tobacco free portfolios.