Taking on Big Tobacco

Radiation oncologist, Dr Bronwyn King (MBBS 1999) is very familiar with caring for patients suffering from tobacco-related illness. The devastating impact of tobacco has always left a deep impression on her. In 2010, Dr King discovered that her superannuation fund included investment in the tobacco industry, she was compelled to act.

Dr Bronwyn King

Australia is well-regarded as one of the world’s most progressive countries on tobacco regulation and policy, yet Dr King's enquiries revealed a profound disjunct between the health and finance sectors: Australian health practitioners were unwittingly investing in the cause of a problem many dedicated their working lives to fix.

So, in 2012, Dr King founded Tobacco Free Portfolios to collaboratively work with the finance sector to encourage tobacco-free investment.

“I was living in a 'health bubble' and I was shocked to find that other very significant parts of the Australian community—the superannuation and finance sectors—were completely misaligned with both our Federal Government and health sectors on the issue of tobacco. Through my conversations, it quickly became clear that finance leaders themselves were also alarmed when the facts were placed in front of them.”

In the last 12 months, the work of Dr King and Tobacco Free Portfolios has been instrumental in the divestment of over $4 billion of tobacco industry assets, by financial institutions in seven countries.

While Australians are well protected from the tobacco industry via government regulation, this is not the case all around the world. Every day, an estimated 100,000 children start smoking, most of them in the poorest countries in the world.

”Australia is indeed the ‘Lucky Country’. We rank highly on almost every metric globally and while we have strong tobacco control and very bold leadership from all sides of politics on tobacco policy, the missing element has been the conversation between the finance sector and the health sector.”

Dr King's ambitious goal is for tobacco-free investment to be the baseline standard in the Australian superannuation industry. With almost 50 per cent of Australian superannuation funds now tobacco-free, it looks like this goal will soon become a reality, making Australia, once again, a global leader in combating the tobacco problem.

“Once we reach 50 per cent, I hope the conversation will change from ‘Should we go tobacco-free?’ to ‘Why aren’t we already tobacco-free?’ We are almost there.

“There is no sound reason why pension funds, insurers or banks should be lending money to tobacco companies or investing in them. If a new product was invented today that caused six million deaths over the next 12 months, we wouldn't dream of investing in it! We need to apply 2017 thinking to tobacco.”

In February of this year, Dr King’s tireless efforts to bring down the tobacco industry were recognised in her selection as the inaugural Joint Distinguished Fellow in Australia Studies, a position facilitated by the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies at Kings College, London, and the University of Melbourne’s Australian Centre.

“The Fellowship is a great honour and an exciting platform to advance collaboration across sectors of society. The tobacco issue is an excellent case study that shows there are some gaps in the conversations that need to be recognised and addressed. When we are all part of a common dialogue, major global challenges can be confronted.

“It is terribly distressing to see patients suffering from tobacco-related illness. Working with Tobacco Free Portfolios is deeply satisfying as I am at least partially addressing the greater problem, rather than only being at the other end, desperately trying to help people who are the victims of an industry that does not respect human life.”

Dr King’s passion for health was ignited during her early career as a competitive swimmer. At 14 years old she was training in the gym at the Nunawading Swimming Club when a picture on the wall of the muscles of the human body caught her eye. She stood spellbound, trying to work out which muscles she needed to strengthen so that she could swim faster. “I made a photocopy of this picture and went home to memorise all of the muscles in the human body. I’ve been fascinated with human health ever since.”

After graduating from the University of Melbourne, Dr King imagined working full-time as a clinician and pursuing her keen interest in medical education. Tobacco Free Portfolios changed the trajectory of her life and career and she still admits to sometimes wondering where her life is taking her.

“I once said to my colleague Clare [Payne, the Chief Operating Officer of Tobacco Free Portfolios], ‘I’m not really sure where I’m going’. To which she replied, ‘Don’t worry, just keep stepping forwards. The path is forming under your feet.’ I love that sentiment because the truth is, although I still don’t know exactly where I’m going, it definitely feels like things are falling into place. Despite the uncertainty, exciting opportunities keep presenting themselves and I’m always curious to see where they may lead.

“Surprisingly, one of our greatest challenges is securing funding for Tobacco Free Portfolios itself. Despite an international groundswell of support, we don't fit neatly into set funding categories for many foundations or organisations considering support. Of course, that’s because what we do is unique—we are the only organisation in the world working to address this missing piece of tobacco control. We need to expand our reach and share the Australian case study broadly. I’m confident that a path will form!”

Dr King is made for the work of influence and advocacy. Immediately amiable, warm and animated, she approaches all discussions positively with the aim of collaborating with, not fighting against, the finance industry. Her ceaseless determination, which she says is a trait she learnt from her swimming coach when she was young, has produced phenomenal results.

Tobacco Free Portfolios has just established a Global Advisory Committee which includes Her Royal Highness Princess Dina Mired of Jordan, the President-elect of the Union for International Cancer Control; Sir Harpal Kumar, the CEO of Cancer Research UK; Lord Hutton, the former Secretary for Work and Pensions in the UK; The Honourable Ted Baillieu, former Premier of Victoria; and The Honourable Ros Kelly, former Australian Federal MP, among many other notable leaders across health, finance and government.

Global momentum is certainly starting to build towards making tobacco-free investment an international baseline standard. Notable tobacco-free policies implemented in the past year alone include insurance giant AXA (which divested $1.8 billion Euro tobacco industry assets in May 2016); Sweden’s leading pension fund AP4; France’s largest pension fund—Fonds de Reserve pour les Retraites; Ireland’s Sovereign Investment Fund; CalPERS—the largest pension fund in the USA; AMP Capital (the largest tobacco-free move in Australia to date); and Bank of New Zealand.

“I have met people I never imagined I would meet. Gone to places I never thought I would go to and been part of conversations that I never thought I would have the privilege of hearing. It is constantly inspiring to meet people in positions of great influence who really care about the issue of tobacco and want to make a change.”

To find out more about Tobacco Free Portfolios visit www.tobaccofreeportfolios.org