Dr Bronwyn King is a woman on mission. She devotes just about all her time and energy convincing the global finance sector to remove their investments and associations with tobacco. We spoke to her about her personal story and the achievements of her organisation, Tobacco Free Portfolios.
It was in 2010 that Bronwyn, an oncologist who had spent the early part of her career treating patients with lung cancer, discovered that she was unwittingly investing in the tobacco industry. She was naturally horrified to learn that her superannuation was funding the industry that manufactures the products that were killing her patients. So Bronwyn initiated discussions with First State Super, which had recently merged with Health Super, to request they stop investing members’ money in tobacco. After a series of meetings and a presentation to the super fund’s board, First State Super undertook an analysis of the issue and, in 2012, announced they would be going tobacco-free.
Today, Bronwyn has built Tobacco Free Portfolios into a global organisation. We were a Founding Signatory of the Tobacco-Free Finance Pledge, have never invested in tobacco companies in our 34 year history. Bronwyn has gone on to secure commitments from other financial organisations such as AXA Group, BNP Paribas, Crédit Agricole, Amundi and Natixis from France, Robeco, ING and ABN-AMRO from the Netherlands and more than 45 Australian super funds. There are 138 signatories to her Tobacco-Free Finance Pledge representing combined assets of over US$10 trillion.
It’s been a busy year for Bronwyn. In November 2019 she was named Melburnian of the Year for her inspirational advocacy in convincing investors to think differently about tobacco and their investments. In May 2020, as the world was dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, she hosted a high-level webinar to coincide with World No Tobacco Day that included international leaders like World Health Organization Director-General Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus, Nobel Laureate Professor Peter Doherty AC, CEO of the Principles for Responsible Investment Fiona Reynolds and even the director of Love Actually and co-founder of Make My Money Matter, Richard Curtis.
Speaking at the webinar, Bronwyn said the words ‘sustainable’ and ‘tobacco’ do not belong in the same sentence. She also highlighted the fact that 14 of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals will likely not be achieved unless we address tobacco.
WHO Director-General Dr Ghebreyesus noted that tobacco is “one of the world’s largest preventable causes of premature death, accounting for eight million deaths per year. That’s one person every four seconds.”
“The only language the tobacco industry understands is money. We applaud the leadership of the Tobacco-Free Finance Pledge which has brought together some of the world’s biggest investment firms to send a strong message that they will no longer sponsor the death and disease this industry causes,” said Dr Ghebreyesus.
The event also saw Crédit Agricole and Amundi Asset Management become Signatories of the Tobacco-Free Finance Pledge.
We caught up with Bronwyn recently (in the virtual sense!) to talk about how far she has come – and what still needs to be done.
What have been some of the challenges developing Tobacco Free Portfolios into an international organisation?
Bronwyn: An enduring challenge for the work of Tobacco Free Portfolios is securing sustainable funding. We are a registered not-for-profit however we fall outside many of the traditional categories for philanthropic grants and donations. We are fortunate to have had some support over the years from like-minded people and organisations, such as Australian Ethical, who see the value and need for what we do.
How difficult is it for big financial institutions to fully divest from tobacco stocks?
Bronwyn: It’s not difficult per se, but it does take time. In most cases, it can take months to years, but the crucial thing is to make the decision and get started. It’s pleasing to see many new tobacco-free products on the market which is certainly making the process faster.
How do you think financial planners should approach the subject of tobacco divestment with their clients?
Bronwyn: I believe that the more people are informed the better. Financial planners play a crucial role in helping clients consider the broad issue of sustainability and then expanding the conversation so that clients can consider a ‘sustainability framework’ for their finances. When it comes to exclusions, it’s increasingly common for tobacco, controversial weapons and the worst environmental polluters to end up on the list.
What do you think the fossil fuel divestment movement can learn from your successful engagement with the finance industry on tobacco?
Bronwyn: My team and I take a really positive approach to engaging with the finance sector. We see ourselves as advocates, rather than campaigners and activists. We adopt the principle of ‘naming and faming’, rather than shaming. We’ve found this approach to be effective and we’ve built good relationships and networks as a result.
Do you think tobacco companies have completely lost their social licence? What additional pressure can be put on them (as well as persuading investors to divest)?
Bronwyn: A good way to reflect on that point is to pose a simple question: Should companies that make products that kill eight million people each year have a ‘social licence to operate’? I think not!
There are many additional pressures on the tobacco industry, other than financial, including increasing regulation, increasing litigation, scrutiny of an appalling record of child labour in supply chains, scrutiny of devastating environment impact (tobacco causes 5% global deforestation and cigarette filters are the number one ocean plastic) and intensifying reputation risks.
Our work is important, but every individual also has a role to play by checking that their finances aren’t contributing to the terrible destruction that tobacco causes to people and society.
You often cite the email from your mentor Professor David Ball, who told you: “By this action you will save more lives than in an entire lifetime as a clinician. Keep up the great work.” How have those words carried you through the past few years?
Bronwyn: I love what I do, despite the challenges and difficulties. There is still so much more to achieve but I have many more people surrounding and supporting me and my team. We’re always thinking about how to do things better, and it’s great to have those words in my head when we’re considering the next steps.