Meet the doctor hitting big tobacco where it hurts

Meet the doctor hitting big tobacco where it hurts

Meet the doctor hitting big tobacco where it hurts

Updated 22 June 2017, 10:40 AEST

Oncologist Bronwyn King spent a decade helping patients suffering the consequences of smoking, only to discover she was an unwitting investor in big tobacco.

"Are you telling me I'm currently investing in tobacco?!"

Radiation oncologist Dr Bronwyn King made a horrifying discovery in March 2010.

At a coffee meeting with her super fund representative, she discovered — by accident — that her money was being invested in big tobacco.

"I was just so taken aback because I'd been a doctor then for 10 years and had superannuation for 10 years," she told News Breakfast.

"So for 10 years, I owned Philip Morris, British American Tobacco — I owned these companies. Because when you invest in these companies, you own these companies."

A turning point for the good doctor

Dr King's voice trembles when she reflects on the horror she felt at that moment.

Up until that point she had never really paid any attention to her super.

"I was the classic disengaged member. I knew superannuation existed, but that was it," she said.

However, at that moment in the cafeteria, everything changed. She simply couldn't let it go unchecked.

Since then, Dr King has worked tirelessly to champion tobacco-free investment, bringing the issue to boardrooms of super funds across Australia and the world.

She is the chief executive officer and founder of Tobacco Free Portfolios and has helped redirect $6 billion of investment from the tobacco industry to other industries globally over the past five years.

It is estimated 41 Australians die every day because of tobacco, and according to the World Health Organisation the world is on track for one billion tobacco deaths this century.

Dr King believes that by engaging the finance sector we can change that trajectory at least a little bit, and she feels obliged to act.

"Most of my patients are either not here any more or are very sick, but I've got their stories," she said.

"I need to make sure that those stories are told and that we use those stories to change things."

'I was naive in the beginning'

When it comes to saving lives, Dr King admits her journey has been unexpected and she had a lot to learn when it came to taking on the finance industry.

"I was very green when I came to this," she said.

"I didn't understand any of the language, regulatory environment, the rules or the systems.

"I was just very naively coming in as a doctor saying, can we please fix this?"

One of the roadblocks she faced was justifying her stance.

She was frequently asked: "If we do exclude tobacco, are you going to come back next week and make us exclude 10 other industries. How can you justify excluding just tobacco?"

In response, Dr King developed a framework that suggested investors ask three questions of any company in which they may invest:

  1. Can the product made by the company be used safely?
  2. Is the problem caused by the company so significant on a global scale that it's subject to a UN treaty?
  3. Are there are any other effective strategies to deal with the problem? For example, can you engage with a company to encourage them to behave better?

The trouble is, it's tricky to find out if your money is being invested in tobacco or not.

Crowdfunding campaign to create change

To tackle this, Tobacco Free Portfolios launched a crowdfunding campaign, seeking donations to help roll out their new initiative called "Verified Tobacco-Free".

The concept is a bit like the Heart Foundation tick.

Tobacco-free funds that agree to being audited (to confirm they are indeed tobacco-free) will be able to purchase and adopt the Verified Tobacco-Free logo.

They can then display the logo on their websites and letters to members to proudly declare their tobacco-free status.

Tobacco Free Portfolios hopes the increased awareness of the issue will encourage other funds to follow suit.

"The goal is to raise awareness of this not just in super funds but in sovereign wealth funds, insurers, banks, reinsurers, fund managers," Dr King said.

Tobacco Free Portfolios are engaged with more than 100 of those organisations globally and their goal is to make Australia the first country in the world with a completely tobacco-free superannuation system.