Battling another global killer
Money Magazine Australia|September 2020
Despite launching her global campaign against “Big Tobacco” a decade ago, Melbourne radiation oncologist Bronwyn King says she still works “every second of the day” to bring about the downfall of an industry that the World Health Organisation (WHO) says causes one death every six seconds.
ALAN DEANS
Her team at Tobacco Free Portfolios, a not-for-profit organisation aiming to eliminate investment in tobacco globally, has since made significant advances. Yet she doesn’t hold her breath that cigarettes will disappear any time soon.

“It might be that we are able to escalate tobacco control awareness and policy during a time when the whole world is focused on health,” says King. “Everything else is being disrupted and re-imagined, and everybody is talking about building back better after Covid-19. It would be very nice to build back a world that is tobacco free, rather than one that just expected eight million incremental deaths a year.”

King now has plenty of clout. Her campaign has galvanised support from local and global heavyweights, including finance groups AXA, BNP Paribas, AustralianSuper and AMP. In May, she organised a launch with WHO at United Nations headquarters in New York and called on young people to become a tobacco-free generation. A webinar was held instead.

WHO’s director-general, Tedros Ghebreyesus, pledged support for a new campaign that zeros in on youth smoking. Some 138 signatories from 26 countries have joined the cause, which means they refuse to invest in tobacco, lend the industry money or issue insurance policies. Backers have $US10.9 trillion ($15 trillion) under management and corporate loan books of $US2.6 trillion.

Fact file

Bronwyn King

Radiation oncologist and global anti-tobacco campaigner; age 45; a former competitive swimmer and the reigning Melburnian of the Year

King says Covid-19 has “broken my heart” because a city known for its vibrant festive activities has fallen quiet. She grew up in suburban Camberwell and her first job was as a lifeguard for many years, teaching children to swim. Aspired to be a competitive swimmer, but had a bad shoulder injury at 17. The biggest influence on her life has been former Australian swimming coach Leigh Nugent. She says former First State Super CEO Michael Dwyer taught her about finance, what it takes to create chance and the importance of taking a long-term view. She enjoys bike riding with her family.

Long favoured by big investors for paying fat dividends, Big Tobacco is certainly feeling the heat.

Covid-19 is hitting cigarette sales at all tobacco companies, including leaders like British American Tobacco (BAT) and Altria. BAT recently reported that it expected sales to sag by 3% this year, partly because duty-free sales to travellers had fallen and also because sales bans had been imposed in some emerging countries.

But Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris, which makes Marlboro, now claims the sales slump is easing as lockdowns in the US give smokers more time to indulge at home. The pandemic is also harming acceptance of alternative products such as vaping and e-cigarettes. Forecasts are for an annual sales drop of 7% this year.

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