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How this oncologist funnelled $1.3 trillion away from big tobacco

It was a conversation that changed the world.

Dr Bronwyn King, an Australian radiation oncologist, was speaking with her super fund representative as she wanted to buy a house but wasn’t sure how much money she had in her fund.

The conversation was straightforward, a “nice chat”, as King described.

But as she was getting ready to leave, she asked: “By the way, was I supposed to tell you what to do with that money?”

“No, no, no, you don’t need to worry; it’s all taken care of, you’re in the default option,” the representative responded.

“Are you telling me I’m currently investing in tobacco?”

It triggered a question: “Does there mean there are no other options?”

Relating it now, King remembers how the superfund representative rolled his eyes as he said, “Look there’s one greenie option for people who have a problem with investing in mining, alcohol and tobacco.”

Dr Bronwyn King and her team launch the Tobacco Free Finance Pledge at the United Nations Headquarters in New York. Image: Supplied

King responded, “Did you just say tobacco?”

“Yes.”

“Are you telling me I’m currently investing in tobacco?” she asked again, aghast.

“Oh, yes. Everyone.”

That was March 2010, and that’s where the Tobacco Free Portfolios initiative began.

Today, the combined assets of the Australian super funds that have implemented a tobacco-free investment policy is a staggering $1.3 trillion.

Taking on big tobacco

“At the latest tally, Australia has got about $2.7 trillion dollars in superannuation and that makes that the fourth largest amount of superannuation of any country in the world,” King told Yahoo Finance.

“That money has the power to really influence or change things. So we really need to think about which companies we’re investing in and which ones we’re not investing in.”

“I had to learn a new language, and I had to do a lot of work to imagine what it was like to sit opposite me around the boardroom table and have the discussion from the other side.”

Tobacco Free Portfolios – as the name suggests – is a campaign celebrating, encouraging and uniting major investors who are considering or have removed tobacco firms from their portfolios.

And the journey to Tobacco Free Portfolios was incredible. King had to learn how to bridge the gap between the financial services sector and the health sector on the issue, which meant learning about finance and – critically – finding people who would listen.

“I had to learn a new language, and I had to do a lot of work to imagine what it was like to sit opposite me around the boardroom table and have the discussion from the other side.”

She secretly hopes for an honorary degree in finance, she quips, as after all the learning she did – she believes she deserves one.

“But it was a really important part of the process. I couldn’t be taken seriously until I spoke the right language.”

The next challenge was finding leaders willing to take the leap.

Initially, King found three super funds that had no-tobacco policies, Christian Super, Local Government Super and Australian Ethical.

But thanks to a number of closed-door conversations, that number grew and grew.

There’s a photo King loves of when Tobacco Free Portfolios hit that $1.3 trillion figure in Australia alone.

“It leaves a great legacy for the next generation, they feel very proud of the decision.”

There are around 60 people in it.

The best part?

“The finance leaders – not just in Australia but globally – feel great about making this decision. It leaves a great legacy for the next generation, they feel very proud of the decision,” King said.

“In the end, it’s something that they can look back on with great satisfaction knowing that they’ve done the right thing. So I think that’s what it took to get there.”

Tobacco Free Portfolios hits $1.3 trillion in assets under management. Image: Supplied

It also took a determined strategy: don’t talk to the tobacco firms, it’s not worth it. But when funds and leaders do make the decision to move away from funding tobacco, shout it from the rooftops.

“We work in good spirits behind the scenes, collaboratively, professionally, patiently for as long as it takes to help financial organisations land on tobacco free,” she said.

“When they do, we’re the first to really, genuinely congratulate them and thank them for making such a great decision. That has been a strategy that has served us very well and has left us with a wonderful network of people who feel really passionately about this issue and who want to help us.”

So, what’s next?

Fast-forward to September 2018: King is launching the Tobacco Free Finance Pledge at the United Nations Headquarters in New York.

It’s a “pinch-me” moment for King.

The pledge is a partnership with three UN agencies and a collective of some of the world’s biggest financial organisations like BNP Paribas, AXA, Natixis and AMP Capital.

And on the day of the launch, there were 94 Founding Signatories controlling more than US$6.5 trillion (A$9.11 trillion).

“For the first time ever the global finance sector was standing shoulder to shoulder with global health leaders and governments on the issue of tobacco. That’s never happened before, and I’m very happy that it happened.”

“US dollars,” she emphasised.

“So that was a start.”

The pledge will be open to signatories for the next three years, with a series of events encouraging financial organisations around the world to sign up.

Dr Bronwyn King meets with Malcolm Turnbull at the United Nations. Image: Supplied

Just this week, a €44bn (A$69.5 billion) Finnish pension fund, Varma, made the pledge.

Today, the pledge is what makes King the proudest.

“All of these incredible people were in the room,” she said.

“For the first time ever the global finance sector was standing shoulder to shoulder with global health leaders and governments on the issue of tobacco. That’s never happened before, and I’m very happy that it happened.”

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