It was a simple question in a sit down with her superannuation representative in 2010, that yielded enough smoke for 2017 TEDxSydney speaker Bronwyn King to check thoroughly for fire. She found it, raging undetected in her funds ‘default’ option, where her money was being invested in big tobacco.
King, a Melbourne radiation oncologist, was horrified that she and her colleagues at Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre were unknowingly supporting tobacco at the expense of their patients, whose lives, and those of their family and friends, were ravaged by the effects of lung cancer.
“I couldn’t sleep at night once I found out,” she reflects. “I was so sure that Australians would be concerned that this was the baseline standard, that some of their money was invested in tobacco.”
This gut response was the beginning of Tobacco Free Portfolios. Beginning with her own First State Super, which later merged with Health Super, the .org has collaborated with finance industry executives to see 33 Australian Super funds implement tobacco-free investment.
King is driven by her patient’s stories, which are rarely heard. You might be surprised to hear lung cancer patients endure discrimination, as sufferers of a disease that many see as self-inflicted. And while other cancers are viewed more compassionately, as she points out, “last year more women died in Australia of lung than breast cancer.”
”Smoking is seen as a choice, but the facts demonstrate otherwise. It’s children that start smoking, not adults, and we know that nicotine is one of the most addictive products to the human body. 90% of smokers regret ever having taken it up as children,” King continued, suggesting that cultural influence and peer pressure play a major role in people’s ‘choice’ to smoke, particularly teenagers.
Bronwyn King is an example of how to create change in the 21st century. She protests super funds tobacco investment boardroom by boardroom rather than on the street, her negotiations replacing the picket sign with skilled finesse.
Graduating dux of Fintona Girls’ School in 1992 before going on to study medicine at Melbourne University, and becoming a champion national swimmer, she’s put her can-do spirit to extraordinary use in adult life.
The same spirit that had her set up a meeting to convince AXA, the world’s second-biggest insurer, to divest of their tobacco stocks, on a 2016 trip to Paris. A seemingly impossible task, until three weeks later she received an email advising they were out. King and AXA chief Thomas Buberl went on to address the World Health Assembly, a contributing factor to the beginning of the World Health Organisation (WHO) global task force, run by King’s Tobacco Free Portfolios. No easy feat.
Tobacco Free Portfolios have their work cut out for them, if they’re to achieve their end game – 100% super fund divestment – but my money’s on King. Her courage, driven by her real-life commitment to her patients and their tragically shortened lives, is going to be hard to defeat.