Investing In Tobacco Free Portfolios: An Interview With Bronwyn King

BAD GASTEIN, Austria — People and institutions around the world may be unknowingly contributing to “the world’s number one cause of preventable death, via their pension funds,” according to Tobacco Free Portfolios, a global group working to cut off investment in tobacco products. And policymakers have a role to play, says the group’s CEO, Bronwyn King.

Bronwyn King

King, a radiation oncologist, tells the story of how she had treated hundreds of lung cancer victims when she discovered one day in a meeting with a financial adviser that her pension fund was investing in the tobacco industry. Since then, she has mobilized funders around the world to stop investing in tobacco.

King spoke with Health Policy Watch during the recent European Health Forum at Bad Gastein, Austria.

The mission of Tobacco Free Portfolios is to “inform, prioritise and advance tobacco-free finance.” The group has set out to “inform, prioritise and advance tobacco-free finance by eliminating tobacco from investment portfolios across the globe,” it says. Tobacco kills some 7 million people per year, it says.

From the policy perspective, King pointed to the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), noting that 181 countries have signed and ratified this “wonderful tool.” She said countries are working to implement the convention’s provisions, but that “there are a couple of provisions in there that have received scant attention and need some more attention.” These relate to the finance sector and finance ministry.

“If your government signed and ratified the treaty, then government-related financial institutions, including sovereign wealth funds and public pension funds, are required to be tobacco-free in their investments,” she said. “That has not been well-communicated to the finance ministers of most countries, and it certainly has not been communicated to the executive teams and the investment teams that run those sovereign wealth funds and pension funds.”

“So what I would really urge governments to do is to make sure their finance ministries are aligned with their health ministries when it comes to tobacco control,” she said. She also pointed to the UN Tobacco Control Treaty, which is not being discussed, people need to be part of the discussion.

Working to bring this to the attention of governments is “one small part of what we do,” said King. The small group works with “the whole finance sector” across the board, from banks to fund managers to rating agencies to index providers, to learn about tobacco and reconsider relationships with the tobacco industry.

The group is happy to have any interested parties reach out to them for help, she said.

Every country will probably have to have a tailored approach to this, she said, with “different levers that can be pulled in different countries.” These depend on where they are up to on tobacco control, on their leaders and the “courage” of their leaders, on their health ministries, on the openness of their finance sector to have this conversation, on whether they are signatories to the treaty and have ratified it.

“It really is a ‘bespoke’ process,” she said.

So far, they know they have had impact in at least 12 countries, King said. And the week before, they were at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, launching a new initiative called “The Tobacco Free Finance Pledge.”

For the pledge, they had more than 90 big financial organisations, from 18 different countries, as founding signatories of the pledge.

“We know there are many financial organisations out there that are ready to step up to the plate and be part of the solution to the tobacco epidemic,” she said. The group is eager to connect with all of these financial organisations and help them see that there is a “huge movement” happening. For instance, there are an increasing number of banks implementing policies of no longer lending to tobacco companies, insurers who will no longer insure tobacco companies, and others.

“This is becoming the thing to do, it’s normal,” remarked King. “Some of the biggest mainstream financial players in the world have made this decision.” These include BNP, Europe’s biggest pension fund, and 45 funds in Australia alone (where she is from), with those in Australia controlling $1.3 trillion. The founding signatories have assets of some US$6.5 trillion, she said, adding, “So we’re talking big money.”

For the pledge, there are two categories. Financial organisations are encouraged to become signatories to the pledge, and health groups are encouraged to become supporters of the pledge.

Rise of Vaping

As to how the project targets new e-cigarettes that are rapidly rising in popularity, including among very young users in the United States and elsewhere, she said they are focused tobacco producers who make tobacco products.

“The most important thing to remember,” King said, is that today, about 15 billion cigarettes are going to be made, and today, about 100,000 children are going to start smoking cigarettes, and today, the tobacco industry is very busy diluting and delaying implementation of tobacco control policies.”

“The global health community is very concerned about teenagers and vaping, and it’s something that we’re all looking at very closely. We’re aware that it’s an issue that requires our urgent attention.”

Tobacco Free Toolkit

For those seeking more information and assistance about Tobacco Free Portfolios, a detailed “toolkit” available on the website provides extensive background on the issue and answers to the many types of questions that typically arise, such as whether investors should be considering ethical questions when looking for the best returns for their clients, or the impact of these policies on tobacco-dependent economies. The answers to all of these are clear and succinct.

If investors look at the long-term, they will see the tide is moving against tobacco, making it a less favourable investment. And countries dependent on tobacco revenues need also take into account the higher cost of the health and economic problems that go with it.

The toolkit describes policy actions being taken:

Despite the apparent profitability of returns in the short-term, there is a clear business case for excluding investment in tobacco that includes the following prospective risks:


Unprecedented global cooperation to reduce tobacco use through the UN Tobacco Control Treaty: the World Health Organisation Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.


Class actions and litigation are challenging the tobacco industry business model of externalising costs, resulting in an increasing number of cases being brought to court. In Holland a criminal case was filed in May 2017 against the four largest tobacco companies operational in Holland accusing them of aggravated assault and fraud.

Human Rights:

Financial institutions are increasingly focused on human rights and the tobacco industry’s inability to adhere to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights has caused many to exclude tobacco from their investments. The tobacco industry use of child labour is also under the spotlight as supply chains are increasingly scrutinised.


Investment in tobacco companies implies endorsement of the product itself and of the industry as a whole. Businesses across the globe are reconsidering this association.

We encourage investors and leaders of the finance sector to consider the investment from a long-term view, as the risks are most apparent from this perspective.


Image Credits: Tobacco Free Portfolios.

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