Oncologist Dr Brownyn King doesn’t like to think of herself an activist, or even a campaigner.
But when she discovered in 2010 that part of her superannuation was supporting the global production of cigarettes, she was stunned into action.
After all, her first job had been working on the lung cancer ward at Melbourne’s Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre.
“I was a brand new doctor planning to save the world, and it was just an incredible experience. Obviously all my patients had lung cancer and nearly all of them were smokers or ex-smokers,” says Dr King.
“During my three months nearly all of my patients died. Everybody knows tobacco’s bad but when you really see the impact of it upfront, close up, right in front of you every day it really does leave a very deep impression on you, and it certainly did on me.”
Prior to her revelation, she had rarely given superannuation a second thought.
After delving further, she realised it wasn’t just members of her super fund – many of them hospital colleagues – that were tangled up in the tobacco industry. It was the entire finance sector.
“At first it was really just a very personal issue, because I just couldn’t accept that I was investing in tobacco companies,” says Dr King.
After raising the issue with Peter Mac’s CEO, he organised for her to meet with the board of First State Super, with the fund eventually divesting its stocks.
“That was the first fund I worked with and I’ve been having conversations ever since,” says Dr King, who has since founded the not-for-profit organisation Tobacco Free Portfolios.
“We feel that the statistics with tobacco are so alarming that once informed, many finance leaders feel compelled to make a change and really address it.”
Her approach, which she says relies on collaboration rather than coercion, has been hugely successful, with more than 35 major super funds ditching a total of more than $2.5 billion in tobacco interests.
In mid-March this year, AMP Capital announced it was scrapping $440 million in tobacco shares. It also announced it would exclude manufacturers of cluster munitions, landmines, and biological and chemical weapons from its portfolios.
Tobacco Free Portfolios, now a team of three, has also taken its mission global.
In the past 12 months, they have helped bring about major change. In one monumental decision, multinational insurance firm AXA ditched 1.8 billion euro of tobacco assets.
France’s biggest pension fund also went tobacco-free, while US giant CalPERS voted to extend their tobacco-free policy, which will eventually see it ditching about $US550 million in tobacco stocks.
Other organisations are persuading – or in some cases, rough tackling– super funds to rethink their investments.
Market Forces, an affiliate of Friends of the Earth, believes banks, super funds and governments holding Australians’ money should use it to protect, not damage the environment. Primarily that means staying clear of coal, oil and gas investments.
Campaigner Dan Gocher describes their approach as “persuasion, with teeth” and makes full use of social media.
Market Forces is currently campaigning hard against the proposed Adani coal mine in central Queensland, targeting the major financial institutions.