She Took On Tobacco

Melbourne oncologist Dr Bronwyn King stepped into the meeting with a major Australian financial institution and scanned the faces for the man she was looking for. As a cancer specialist, she’d come here to try to persuade the company to get rid of its tobacco stocks. She’d googled the people she was going to meet and discovered this man was a former stalwart of the tobacco industry.

Singling him out, Bronwyn approached him and asked whether he still believed the tobacco industry – an industry that kills six million people a year – was acceptable in today’s world. As she spoke, her mind flicked back to the patient she’d seen earlier, a gentle, brave, 53-year-old woman with teenage kids whose lung cancer was quickly spreading through her bones.

It quickly became apparent that the man had not changed his views, and Bronwyn asked him to leave the meeting. “I have no interest in talking to the tobacco industry,” she says. “I’m an oncologist, I very much feel the weight of my patients on my shoulders, many of whom are no longer here. There is no safe level of tobacco consumption. The only acceptable outcome is that the industry ceases to exist.”

An articulate mother of two young children, Bronwyn King, 42, never intended to become the face of the new front in the war against Big Tobacco. But with her no-nonsense doctor’s attitude and persuasive way with words, that’s exactly what she’s done.

Bronwyn has turned the world’s attention to the billions of dollars of our money that are invested every year in the tobacco industry – usually without our knowledge. In the past five years, she’s persuaded more than 35 superannuation (retirement) funds to unload their tobacco stocks. She encouraged AXA, the world’s second-largest insurer, to divest AU$2.6 billion of tobacco industry assets. Medibank, Australia’s largest private health insurer; AP4, a large Swedish pension fund; and Fonds de Réserve pour les Retraites, the largest French pension fund, have all shunned tobacco after engaging with Bronwyn. As a result of her tireless efforts, 40 per cent of Australian superannuation funds are now tobacco-free, with many others actively working towards that goal.

“We are on track for one billion tobacco-related deaths this century. On tobacco the health community is united and so are most governments, but the finance sector has never really been part of the conversation. Without finance leaders on board, the tobacco industry will continue to prosper,” she says.

Counting the Cost

Bronwyn first saw the ravages caused by tobacco as a junior doctor on a three-month stint in a lung-cancer ward. She saw patients struggling with terrible pain as the cancer metastasised to their brain or bones, but it was the sense of terrible loss that got to her – the knowledge that these patients would miss graduations, weddings, births and grandchildren, all because they had smoked cigarettes. With tobacco directly responsible for 82 per cent of lung-cancer cases worldwide, its devastation would extend down through the generations of these families at her patients’ bedsides.

Lung cancer remains a largely incurable disease. Like other doctors, most of the time all Bronwyn could do was slow its progression and relieve her patients’ suffering. Then a chance encounter in 2010 at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre where she worked showed her that she could do more.

She’d sat down with a representative from her superannuation fund, Health Super, and asked out of interest where her money was being invested. Like most super policies in Australia, she was told, a portion of her money was invested in tobacco. In fact, the largest holdings in the international shares component of her portfolio belonged to the tobacco industry: British American Tobacco, Imperial Tobacco, Philip Morris and Swedish Match.

The discovery hit her and her colleagues hard. The Peter Mac is a dedicated cancer hospital – it was inconceivable that most of its staff were investing in the tobacco industry with their super contributions. Bronwyn started reading. Australian super funds had about $10 billion invested in tobacco, including some of the funds that offered ‘sustainable’ or ‘ethical’ investment options.

Bronwyn took a long look at her patients. Most had started smoking as children, had become hooked on one of the most addictive substances in existence, and were now suffering the inevitable consequences of a lifetime’s smoking. The industry that was peddling this drug needed to be stopped. In between patient consultations and preparing for the birth of her first baby, she set to work. Over many months of coffees, boardroom presentations, emails and phone calls, she started to inform Australia’s financial institutions about tobacco and asked them to reconsider how they structured their investment porfolios.

She pointed out to them that tobacco is an exceptional, unique product that is quite different to any other – unlike alcohol, for example, there is no safe level of consumption. One hundred and eighty governments, including Australia, are Parties to the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which pledges to limit tobacco use worldwide. Yet the tobacco industry continues unchecked, especially in the third world, targeting communities where there is little education about its effects and poor enforcement of regulations.

It was not enough to say smoking was an individual choice, she told the companies. Nicotine was one of the most addictive substances known to man. Nearly all smokers become addicted as adolescents, with 80,000 to 100,000 children picking up the habit every day worldwide, most of them the poorest kids in the poorest communities. “Very few would have any idea that two-thirds of smokers die early as a result of smoking,” Bronwyn said.

She also appealed to the need for financial institutions to be good corporate citizens. A tobacco-free investment policy was entirely do-able. “Why not establish yourself as a leading organisation that’s … on the right side of history?” she urged.

She found many of the most senior financial leaders were quite open to what she was saying. Again and again, they’d share with her stories of their own families’ losses due to tobacco.

“The finance sector had never really been part of the tobacco control conversation. No one had alerted them to the scale of the problem,” she says.

“I understand the environment that they are coming from. I understand they need to make money, particularly when it comes to super, so people can have a dignified existence in their elderly years. I understand the regulatory environment and the barriers. But I found there were many finance leaders out there with whom I could find common ground.”

Turning Tide

In July 2012, First State Super, which had taken over Health Super, became the first Australian superannuation fund to publicly renounce tobacco as a result of Bronwyn’s efforts. Six months later, HESTA followed suit, and by mid-2014 more than $1 billion of tobacco stocks had been divested by Australian superannuation funds.

By now the organisation Bronwyn founded, Tobacco Free Portfolios, was gaining the support of a number of high-profile politicians, and it was time to take her battle global.

In 2015, the Union for International Cancer Control (UICC) provided funding and support to take Tobacco Free Portfolios to a global level. In between juggling her patient load with international phone calls, and caring for her two boys, Bronwyn fitted in trips to the US and Europe.

Tobacco Free Portfolios has now appointed a UK director and plans to expand to other countries. “We are hoping to put this issue on the agenda in boardrooms in financial organisations all across the world,” says Bronwyn. “We’ve also set our sights on sovereign wealth funds. Even though 180 countries have signed the UN tobacco treaty, which states that governments are required to not invest in the tobacco industry, only five have done that. We have the backing of the UN tobacco treaty secretariat to bring more attention to that provision.”

In recent heartening news, she says, in late 2016, in an independent move, the US’s largest state-based pension fund, the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, voted to divest itself of US$547 million in tobacco-related investments.

What Bronwyn finds most challenging is time. But time is something her patients don’t have. She is driven by an overwhelming sense of wanting justice for the people she treats, and the knowledge that, somehow, she’s found herself in a position where she can make a real difference.

“There are people across the world who have spent their lives working for the tobacco industry and will fight this. But when they meet me, it’s a conversation that can go nowhere. What can they possibly say to an oncologist?”

Never miss a deal again - sign up now!

Connect with us: