When a young Australian radiation oncologist learned she was investing in tobacco, the drug killing her patients and over 8 million people annually around the world, she fought back.
Meet Dr. Bronwyn King, the accidental activist. Dr. King called the CEO of her superannuation fund and convinced him to eliminate tobacco from her pension plan. This experience was the impetus for founding Tobacco-free Portfolios in 2010. As chief executive officer of the non-profit, Dr. King is on a mission is to create a tobacco-free world.
When I first met Dr. King, I had no idea the World Health Organization called tobacco a global epidemic. I also wondered how one person could fight an industry with hundreds of billions of dollars and unimaginable political clout. Anyone that’s seen, Thank You For Smoking, a star-studded, satirical black comedy with actors that include Aaron Eckhart, Rob Lowe, Katie Holmes, Robert Duvall and William H. Macy, understands exactly what I’m saying.
But after learning more about the strategy behind Tobacco Free Portfolios and the market forces already eroding this mammoth industry, I realized there would never be a more opportune time nor a more capable superhero than Dr. King.
A Timely Approach
Dr. King’s plan is threefold: build awareness about the dangers of tobacco, educate organizations and people, and execute a plan that cuts at the heart of the tobacco industry’s life blood – their source of financing. As a frontline medical doctor, Dr. King’s knowledge provides an insider’s edge. By promoting the financial principles of smart investing and the value of human life and our health as fundamental components of investment decisions, she changes the rules of engagement.
For example, the supply chain in cigarette production is connected to child labor. Do we want to invest in companies that promote human rights abuses or at the very least, lost opportunities for youth? Kids in China and India, two critical growth markets for tobacco companies, are smoking as early as 10 years old. In Malawi, Africa, nearly 80,000 kids are forced to work in tobacco fields and can’t attend school.
Restrictions to other freedoms and the environmental risks from tobacco use are also a danger. Investors and financial funds don’t think about government healthcare budgets associated with tobacco consumption, let alone the cleanup costs from cigarette waste to our green planet. Tobacco creates unfair financial burdens that exceed any tax revenues paid by companies, thereby driving up the overall cost of health plans, insurance and even accessibility to care for non-smokers whose taxes already fund the unfair costs. What’s more, cigarette filters are one of the largest plastic pollutants in our waters. Who’s going to pay for that?
Accelerants to Tobacco Industry Decline
As people begin to realize the increasingly negative impact of tobacco companies, they are also seeing how marketing deadly tobacco products actually infringes on our human rights and freedoms. Growing scrutiny around products like vaping and dubious advertising claims have created greater publicity and more lawsuits against tobacco companies. This makes investing in tobacco companies riskier and less profitable. But tobacco companies continue to create new products and expand into new markets to increase their revenues.
I asked Dr. King how it’s possible for tobacco products with 50+ known carcinogens to even be in the marketplace. Dr. King admits a problem because the regulatory field is complex and differs across countries and regions. She says to make matters worse, “there is a long and well document history of tobacco industry interference in public health. They actively fight against public health policies designed to protect people from tobacco, and produce, promote and market products that are known to result in the premature death of up to two thirds of product users.”
It’s hard to imagine, but there are thankfully additional forces accelerating tobacco-free initiatives. One unlikely force is our current battle against the COVID-19 global pandemic. We can’t escape the correlation between the deaths of infected patients with those who have pre-existing heart disease and smoking-related health issues.
Other more formalized initiatives have come from the United Nations (UN) and the World Health Organization (WHO). WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control in 2004 created a legally binding health treaty to end the tobacco epidemic. The European Union signed on as did over 181 countries. It mandates control measures to reduce the number of new smokers and to get smokers to quit. Likewise, the United Nations Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights and Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) for investors has enacted the only UN-banned product (tobacco) legislation to date.
What’s really interesting, however, are the accelerants in the investment industry contributing to the decline of the tobacco industry. While tobacco sales and advertising has dropped in the US, investment trends demanding more socially-responsible investment strategies (SRI’s) are ticking up. This is great news to Dr. King and Tobacco Free Portfolios. SRI is growing quickly in the investment industry and require companies to be transparent with better returns that meet the increased demand for social good and scrutiny.
A Vision for the Future
No doubt, as Dr. King travels the world, she continues to add more wins to her already US $8 trillion in divested funds. Since launching Tobacco-Free Portfolios, Dr. King garnered immediate international interest and support from countries like France and big investment houses like AXA, BNP Paribas, and Natixis. Top fund companies, asset management firms and banks are taking the pledge to be tobacco-free, but there is still so much work to be done.
Governments and all types of companies need to examine their supply chain providers like insurance and accounting companies. Dr. King’s network of leaders, people like Clare Payne (Chief of Global Strategist) and Dr. Rachel Melsom (Director of UK and Europe), are making progress with the help of Tobacco Free Portfolios’ Board and Advisory Board members. These global influencers in health, finance and philanthropy continue to explore new ideas and new ways to build success.
Dr. King is a sharp-minded, charismatic leader who has managed to attract HRH Princess Dina Mired of Jordan to serve as the Global Ambassador for Tobacco Free Portfolios. She was one of the first to support Dr. King in the early days when she was a lone presenter at conferences.
Other bright spots in Dr. King’s campaign include expansion into the Middle East and the Americas.
This September, Dr. King’s plans to attend the UN Heads of State meeting in New York changed due to COVID-19. While disappointed, she’ll retool and teleconference, remaining confident that governments and powerful heads of companies will see going tobacco-free as an easy choice. To learn more about how you can ensure your investments are tobacco-free, join the more than 3 million viewers who have seen Dr. King’s TedXTalk. Knowing there will be more illnesses and diseases to fight in our globalized world, it’s never been more important for society to determine the balance of individual and collective freedoms and rights to health and safety.
To learn more about Dr. King’s mission or access educational toolkits, visit: Tobacco-Free Portfolios