Virginie Mathé Corporate Responsibility Department

Meet The Doctor Prescribing Tobacco-Free Investments

Protecting People
May 31, 2017

While working at a hospital in her home town of Melbourne, oncologist Dr. Bronwyn King discovered her pension fund was investing in tobacco companies. After successfully getting her fund to go tobacco-free, she now dedicates her life to raising awareness of the harm caused by investing in tobacco with finance leaders around the world.

“In Australia everyone wants to be a great swimmer.” Dr. Bronwyn King chuckles, as she describes how she got into medicine, “I used to be a competitive swimmer and, when I was 14, I saw a poster with all the muscles on the human body and was completely captivated… I wanted to work out which muscles had to be strengthened so I could swim faster. I made a photocopy of the poster, took it home and memorized all the muscles, and from that point on I was fascinated with health.”

Though she originally planned to be a sports doctor or paediatrician, during a term in the lung cancer ward at one of Melbourne’s leading public hospitals - the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre (Peter Mac for short) - she met a doctor, Professor David Ball, whose work and positive attitude would influence her to focus on oncology. A decorated lung cancer oncologist, Prof. Ball is, in her words, “a brilliant teacher… I couldn’t help but be inspired.”

As a result of Prof. Ball’s influence and her own realization that there was much progress needed in oncology, combined with the extraordinary relationships she made with patients at Peter Mac, cancer quickly became her main focus.

But an even bigger change was afoot.

Oddly enough, it initially had little to do with her work and everything to do with a new home she was about to purchase with her husband.

Before buying her home, she heeded the advice of her accountant and took an in-depth look at her finances. One day, simply as an afterthought, she asked her superannuation fund representative if she was supposed to provide input on how her pension fund was to be managed. She learned it was actually invested via a “default” option, one that included significant shares in tobacco multinationals.

As an oncologist treating tobacco-related diseases on a daily basis she was appalled and asked her fund manager “Who still invests in tobacco?” The answer: “Everyone.”

But Dr. King is not everyone.

She immediately started learning more about how tobacco found its way into portfolios and quietly engaged with the leaders of her own pension fund to encourage them to exclude tobacco stocks.

And she didn’t stop there. She went on to play an integral role in the decision of over 35 Australian pension funds (or superannuation funds) to divest their tobacco stocks, for a total sum worth approximately $2 bn.

“Who still invests in tobacco?” The answer: “Everyone.”

Fast forward to today and Dr. King is extremely busy working as an oncologist and spearheading Tobacco Free Portfolios, a global non-profit organization created to “inform, prioritize and advance tobacco free investment by eliminating tobacco from investment portfolios across the globe.”

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And its thanks to the combined efforts of Dr. King, AXA Board Chairman Denis Duverne, Head of ESG Integration Sylvain Vanston and CEO Thomas Buberl that, in May 2016, AXA committed to divest €1.8 bn in tobacco-related assets.

Dr. Bronwyn King @ AXA

At the cusp of 2016, Dr. King was introduced via email to Denis Duverne, Chairman of the Board at AXA Group, by an Australian finance leader. Much to Dr. King’s surprise, Mr. Duverne emailed back right away expressing his interest in having a conversation about tobacco, immediately citing it as an important issue.

So on Monday March 7th, 2016, Dr. King made her way to Paris to sit down with Sylvain Vanston, Head of ESG Integration at AXA: “We went to this little restaurant for lunch and he immediately seemed very interested, asking lots of questions, wanting to know how [divestment] had been done in the past… we even had dessert because we kept talking and he was already strategizing about how he would advance the discussion internally.”

That night, Dr. King could hardly contain her excitement and rang her team back in Australia to say it had gone well and that she had a very good feeling about the meeting and was excited to see where it might go.

Over the next few weeks, Dr. King and Mr. Vanston emailed back and forth regularly: “Before he had to deliver his internal presentation I remember I sent him good luck and said to him, a bit like with my speeches: ‘Imagine that all the oncologists around the world and all the people affected by tobacco are standing beside you in that meeting’.

It was all the encouragement he needed.

Three and a half weeks later, around Easter, Dr. King received an email from Mr. Vanston confirming “We’re doing this, we’re going tobacco-free.” And on Sunday, May 22, 2016, Thomas Buberl, Deputy CEO and incoming CEO of AXA, proudly announced the Group was on the path to withdrawing its investments from tobacco.

Thomas Buberl and Cary Adams, CEO of UICC (Union for International Cancer Control), at the announcement of AXA's divestment from tobacco in 2016

When asked how she felt, Dr. King replied: “I was absolutely delighted, I was just so pleased because it wasn’t just any financial organization going tobacco-free, it was AXA! 1.8 billion Euro worth of tobacco-industry stocks that were going to be divested. I knew it was going to create momentum globally and that it was the start of something big.”

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In fact, this year, on World No Tobacco Day 2017, AXA’s Paris HQ will host a unique event celebrating the finance sector’s role in the ongoing fight against tobacco, including the presentation of a global statement in support of the WHO framework on tobacco control, signed by more than 50 responsible investors worldwide and co-sponsored by AXA, Calpers, AMP Capital and SCOR. The objective, according to AXA CEO Thomas Buberl, is to “make visible the strong support within the financial community, and to rally more and more stakeholders to encourage both the private and public sector to act against tobacco.”

We catch up with Dr. King in Melbourne as she’s about to take off on a round-the-world (literally) advocacy tour with leaders from the finance and other sectors, including a stop in Paris for World No Tobacco Day, to discuss why and how she fights for tobacco-free investments and how others can, and should, get involved.

She always starts, she says, with her patients: “I always take them with me: I try to bring their stories to boardrooms, not just in Australia, but around the world, because the truth is that 6 million people die every single year because of tobacco - 6 million people - and I certainly don’t think there is enough discussion about those people, there’s not enough awareness about those deaths, and there’s certainly not enough change happening.”

She mentions how one of her patients from Peter Mac still inspires her today: “He was an absolutely delightful man… he had started smoking when he was very young, I think he was thirteen years old… He died before the age of 50 and left behind his wife and two teenage girls.”

As if her patients’ stories weren’t enough, it’s the statistics that keep her motivated, she says. “Six million tobacco-related deaths a year means we’re on track for approximately 1 billion deaths this century”, a staggering number she rightly labels “an extraordinary catastrophe that will forever stain this period of time that we’re living in”.

But Dr. King knows change is coming, especially if the finance sector around the world pulls together, including investors and finance leaders in countries like Australia, Canada, the US and the UK, where smoking rates are generally lower than the rest of the world and where efforts like plain packaging and other tobacco control measures have taken hold, together with finance leaders from countries where smoking is on the rise.

She sums up: “Thousands of people around the world work on tobacco control: implementing the UN Tobacco Treaty, educating populations about how dangerous tobacco is, restricting advertising, doing all of these different things… what we do with Tobacco-Free Portfolios is we try to encourage the finance sector to be part of the solution. We want investors around the world to sign the investor statement on tobacco, which elevates the issue.

Once you know the facts, it’s very hard to do nothing.”

Discover Denis Duverne & Dr King interview about the benefits and virtues of quitting tobacco: