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Tobacco menace: Curbing the epidemic with the help of global financial sector

Monday, April 02, 2018
By Dr. Bronwyn King

On May 31st, 2017, four major global investment groups – AXA, CalPERS, SCOR and AMP Capital – launched the World’s first ‘Investor Statement on Tobacco’, committing to supporting Governments in their efforts to implement the provisions of the United Nations’ Tobacco Control Treaty – the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. The event coincided with ‘World Tobacco Day’ and was the first major global initiative that drew the entire world’s attention to the issue of financial investments in tobacco.

The tobacco industry is entangled in the global finance sector, with tobacco companies integrated into mainstream investment portfolios. If you invest money – via your pension fund, your insurer or your bank - it’s highly likely that you own stocks in tobacco companies. In 2010, I made this unsettling discovery of my own investments. As a radiation oncologist, it was disconcerting to learn that my own pension fund was investing a portion of my money in tobacco – the very product responsible for the deaths of many of my patients.

Over the next few months I came to appreciate that it wasn’t just me, but every worker across every country - invested in tobacco companies via their pension funds, insurance companies, and banks. Through our investments, most of us have been unknowingly contributing to the global tobacco epidemic.

Annually, an estimated 7 million people across the globe die early due to tobacco use. When it comes to lung cancer, smoking is responsible for approximately 80% of cases. In India alone, 10 lakh people die from tobacco-related diseases each year and nearly half of cancer cases reported in the country are attributable to tobacco. According to some estimates, there are 27.5 crore tobacco users in the country and every third Indian adult uses some form of tobacco.

Apart from the profound impact on health, tobacco production significantly relies on child labour – an alarming reality that is not well known or broadly reported outside the tobacco-control community. According to the International Labor Organization, child labour is “rampant in tobacco growing communities”. Additionally, the US Department of Labor currently lists 16 countries where child labor is linked to tobacco leaf production.

Tobacco Free Portfolios – the Not-For-Profit organisation I founded and lead – engages with finance leaders across the globe to urge them to reconsider commercial relationships with tobacco companies spanning investment, lending and insurance. By moving to tobacco-free finance, financial organisations can align with Governments, the healthcare sector and the United Nations in efforts to make the world tobacco-free. Addressing financial support of tobacco companies is a crucial element of global tobacco control.

After countless meetings with CEOs and Directors of major financial institutions across the globe, we have started to see the leaders emerge with US $10 billion shifting away from investment in tobacco in the past two years alone. Tobacco Free Portfolios has been delighted to work with many of the world’s most recognized financial institutions including global insurance giant AXA, BNP Paribas – the largest European Bank, ABP - the largest European pension fund and more than 40 Australian pension funds that control a total of approximately AU $1 Trillion. All are now proudly tobacco-free. The change to tobacco-free finance can be achieved and demonstrates a new and vital cross sector commitment towards a tobacco-free world.

 (The author is an Australian Radiation Oncologist and Founder & CEO of Tobacco Free Portfolios)

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