Like most Australians under 50, Dr Bronwyn King didn’t pay much attention to the details of her superannuation fund. When she had reason to investigate, what she found changed her life dramatically.
It wasn’t until Dr Bronwyn King and her husband decided to buy their own home in 2010 that she realised there was more to superannuation than ticking the “default” option.
Dr King, a radiation oncologist at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and Epworth HealthCare in Melbourne, was walking away from a meeting with her accountant when it occurred to her to ask one more question.
“I asked him if I was supposed to be telling him what to do with my money”, Dr King tells the MJA.
“He said no, that my money was being invested using the ‘default option’. I asked him if that meant there was another option and he told me there was a ‘greenie’ option that guaranteed none of my investments would be in mining, alcohol or tobacco.
“I said, ‘does that mean I’m investing in them now?’ and he said ‘oh yes, everybody is’.
It was, Dr King says, her “moment”.
“It was so disappointing”, she says. “This was 10 years after I had started as a doctor and been with Health Super [now First State].”
Dr King’s professional life as a radiation oncologist began with a 3-month stint in 2001 with Peter Mac’s lung cancer unit.
“It was a very confronting experience”, she says. “I cared for so many patients who were there as a direct result of smoking.
“Lung cancer is a terrible disease, the suffering is profound and it doesn’t just affect the patients, it’s the families and the communities as well.”
The thought that she had been unknowingly putting money into Big Tobacco did not sit well with Dr King.
“I thought it was a terrible fit for me and for my health professional colleagues, and bad for Peter Mac”, she says.
She contacted the then chief executive officer of Peter Mac, Craig Bennett, who was “very concerned” and within 24 hours Dr King found herself speaking with the investment team at Health Super. A presentation to the board of the company followed.
After Health Super merged with First State Super, the company went public in 2012 with the fact that they were committed to going completely tobacco-free, divesting $200 million in tobacco. Since then, 27 other superannuation funds have followed suit, resulting in a total divestment of over $1.3 billion, and Dr King is working with another 30 funds.
“The conversation became much easier to have once First State went public with their plans”, Dr King says.
“Their CEO Michael Dwyer was totally supportive and he opened the doors to other leaders in the field, who I wouldn’t have otherwise had access to.
The cause of tobacco-free superannuation now occupies Dr King for about 30 hours a week.
“I think it resonates with a lot of Australians”, she says. “So many have firsthand experiences with the direct consequences of tobacco.”
Dr King has goals for 2015.
The first is to persuade as many Australian superannuation funds as possible to go tobacco free. Then she will work on other financial institutions — banks, insurers, fund managers, etc.
“My ultimate goal is to eliminate the estimated $7 billion of Australian superannuation investments remaining in the tobacco industry”, she says.
Globally, Norway, New Zealand, the Netherlands, some United States states and a few United Kingdom counties’ government funds have made the move to ditch their tobacco investments.
“The average worker is no longer happy to support tobacco”, Dr King says. “Ultimately it would be fantastic to reduce the impact of Big Tobacco.”
She is not tempted to widen her activism beyond tobacco and into mining and alcohol, however.
“With tobacco, there is no upside, no redeeming features to the industry at all. It’s very black and white. The impact of the industry is profound — there are 6 million deaths a year that can be attributed directly to smoking.
“Five years from diagnosis, the survival rate for lung cancer is 15%.
“When I tell the story it’s powerful. People believe me because they know I have firsthand experience of what smoking does.”
Dr King was recently named in the Australian Financial Review’s 100 Women of Influence list for her work, received the President’s award from the Thoracic Society of Australia and New Zealand for leadership in tobacco control, and the World Health Organization wants her to write a publication for them on the subject.
Her Tobacco-Free Investment Initiative has just been registered as a not-for-profit and much of her time in 2015 will be spent raising funds.
“This is the only way to engage with the tobacco industry”, she says. “Many Australians are in the same boat as I was — superannuation is routinely invested in tobacco because that’s the way it’s always been done.
“I want to see a future where the power and influence of Big Tobacco is reduced.”