Tobacco-free investments

Many pension funds around the world invest their money in the tobacco industry, among others. Australian cancer specialist Bronwyn King is successfully fighting to change this.

Text: Dietmar Schobel

Her first job as a hospital physician was a shock for Bronwyn King (43). As a radiation oncology resident at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Center in Melbourne, she mainly treated patients with lung cancer. 85 per cent of them die within five years of the diagnosis, and their death is very frequently extremely torturous. According to the Robert Koch Institute in Germany, nine out of ten cases of lung cancer in men are due to active smoking; this figure is six out of ten for women.

Bronwyn King suffered a second major shock around ten years later, when she wanted to buy a house together with her husband, New Zealand doctor Mark Shaw, and requested an overview of her pension forecasts. The advisor from her superannuation fund Health Super explained to her that she had no need to worry about pensions. Just like 75 per cent of Australians, her money was invested in the ‘default option’ and therefore used for investments in secure industries such as the production of alcoholic beverages, mining and the tobacco industry.

As a dedicated doctor, she knew that she had to do something about this, and since 2010 she has been successfully implementing her plan, with a lot of optimism, patience and conviction. She told the employees at the Peter MacCallum Center how their pension money was being invested, and with the support of the hospital’s Chief Executive Officer Craig Bennett she made an appointment with the executives of the Health Super fund. Initially, they found the issue challenging, but they listened to her arguments. Two years later,  she had reached her goal: in July 2012 CEO of Health Super Michael Dwyer announced that the pension fund with capital assets totalling around 60 billion euros would be the first in Australia to ban any investment in tobacco.

One of our greatest moments was when the French insurance company AXA, the second biggest worldwide, decided to go tobacco-free

Portrait of Bronwyn King, Founder and CEO at Tobacco Free Portfolios

Bronwyn King, Photo: Tobbaco Free Portfolios

To date, more than 45 other pension funds have followed their example and since 2015 Bronwyn King has been at the helm of the initiative for Tobacco Free Portfolios with the support of a small team of colleagues. Major financial organisations in 12 countries have participated so far. “One of our greatest moments was when the French insurance company AXA, the second biggest worldwide, decided to go tobacco-free,” says Bronwyn King, who recently began rolling out the initiative in Canada and India, and in future intends to persuade even more pension funds to invest responsibly. According to estimations by the World Health Organisation, smoking currently kills seven million people every year and causes economic costs of around 1.8 trillion euros. And these figures are continually rising.