World No Tobacco Day is on May 31st; a day when smokers aim to forsake cigarettes and other tobacco products in the name of highlighting the negative effects of tobacco use.
But the bad guys aren’t only Big Tobacco; responsibility also falls into the hands of the businesses with financial portfolios that support the tobacco manufacturing giants.
Suvi Mahonen chats with Bronwyn King, a headstrong campaigner helping to turn those dodgy business practices around.
My nose curled at the acrid smell of tobacco. Mixed with the fumes from the passing traffic on the Gold Coast Highway it made me want to cough.
I turned, with my phone held to my ear, and saw a young woman, who was maybe 19, 20, standing at the curb of the crossing next to me. Between her lips she nursed a cigarette, tendrils of smoke floating in my direction.
“When I see a breast cancer patient, her partner is supportive, her kids are supportive, her workplace is supportive,” said radiation oncologist Dr Bronwyn King, who I was on the phone with at the time. “Everybody is happy to wear a pink ribbon, raise money and bend over backwards to be supportive for this woman.”
The little green man flickered into view and I quickly stepped onto the road, grateful to leave the young woman and her cigarette behind.
“On the other hand, when we see patients diagnosed with lung cancer, often family members are angry at them,” continued King, who works at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and Epworth Hospital in Melbourne. “At the same time that patient is facing a very serious diagnosis with often a much poorer outcome, and there is often very little sympathy from the general community. It’s treated as an invisible disease and yet the numbers it kills are staggering.”
“The tobacco industry talks about ‘replacement customers’ because so many of its existing customers die.”
King was right. The numbers are profound. According to the World Health Organisation: more than seven million people worldwide die from using tobacco each year. And in Australia, lung cancer cuts short the lives of more than 160 people every week.
“The problem with cigarettes is that they’ve been deliberately designed to be incredibly addictive,” says King. “The tobacco industry talks about ‘replacement customers’ because so many of its existing customers die.”
I glanced back at the young woman and saw the glowing tip swinging in her fingers as she walked. So casual. So oblivious. And I had a sudden image of my four-year-old daughter switching places in 15 years’ time, sensing a pang of guilt for being so judgemental.
The most addictive element of tobacco – nicotine – stimulates our brain’s reward system. But cigarettes also contain over 4000 chemicals, more than 60 of which have been identified as carcinogens. In addition to at least 18 types of cancer, smoking is a leading cause of emphysema, heart disease and stroke.
Thankfully – due in part to anti-smoking campaigns, plain packaging laws, legislative reforms, and tax increases – smoking rates in Australia, as well as other developed countries, have been steadily falling over the past two decades. Figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show that one in seven Australian adults were smokers in 2015, compared with one in four 20 years ago; however this downward trend may be plateauing.
“There has been no significant drop in the smoking rate from 2013 to 2016,” says Associate Professor Colin Mendelsohn, of the University of New South Wales School of Public Health and Community Medicine. “This is the first time there has not been a decline for decades.”
In China, which boasts the highest number of smokers in the world, smoking rates are not declining, and in many developing countries, particularly in parts of Africa where tobacco companies are taking advantage of lax tobacco-related laws to break into new markets, the smoking rates are actually rising.
Gold Coast-based general practitioner Mark Jeffery says most smokers struggle to give up. “Some people enjoy smoking as a pleasurable thing,” he told me when I visited his practice. “All we can do as doctors is try and encourage them to quit. The problem is, with some smokers, they start to switch off when you keep telling them not to smoke.”
King is all too familiar with the human cost of tobacco. As a clinician, she has stood at the bedside witnessing the pain of teenage children saying goodbye to their 43-year-old mother who was dying of lung cancer.
As a result, King has been lobbying hard to hit tobacco companies where it hurts most: the profit margin. It all began in 2010 when she discovered that her superannuation fund, Health Super, was – despite its name – investing money in big tobacco companies such as Phillip Morris and British American Tobacco.
King went into immediate action. Together with Peter MacCallum’s CEO Craig Bennett, she requested a meeting with Health Super, calling on the executives and investment team to renounce tobacco.
It was the start of a two-year process involving multiple meetings and discussions that culminated in the first of many victories for King when her chosen fund became the first in Australia to divest its 200 million worth of shares in tobacco.
King’s elation, however, was tempered with the realisation that the victory came with a deeper sense of responsibility. If she was able to influence one superannuation fund, why not other financial institutions?
King founded the not-for-profit organisation Tobacco Free Portfolios and spent what little free time she had on her phone and on her laptop, spreading her message. Meetings with finance directors or investment managers often had a snowball effect. Convincing board members one at a time, she would not give up until the welcome email from a CEO would come through announcing that their portfolio was now tobacco-free.
At last count, her organisation has convinced 41 out of the 344 non-self-managed super funds in Australia to divest in tobacco. In 2016, the world’s third largest insurer, France’s AXA Group, announced it would relinquish its 1.8 billion euros worth of tobacco stock following six years of campaigning by King.
In December 2017, The BT Financial group went tobacco-free. Australian Super, Telstra Super and OP Trust, a large Canadian pension fund, have all dropped tobacco. And at the United Nations Office at Geneva, King and her team were on site to witness the CEO of BNP Paribas – the world’s 7th largest bank – announce that his organisation was now tobacco free.
“Whenever I’m giving a big presentation or I’m having a difficult conversation with regards to tobacco-free portfolios with a finance leader, I always try to channel my patients,” King said as we completed our call. “Because at the end of the day I’m speaking on behalf of these people who suffered terribly, so that we can make sure that the pattern isn’t just continued forever.”
I walked back to my apartment. My husband and our daughter had arrived home. Her high-pitched squeal was the first thing I heard as the lift doors divided. A moment later our arms were around each other.
I looked down at my daughter and kissed her. I pressed her hair to my cheek and whispered a silent prayer of thanks for King, and the work she was doing on behalf of our children to make the world a healthier place.
World No Tobacco Day is on May 31, 2018. For information about events being held in Australia, visit www.lungfoundation.com.au.
More information about Tobacco-Free Portfolios can be found at www.tobaccofreeportfolios.org.