14 June 2017:
IN her first job in her chosen profession, this young Australian spent her days watching people die as she tried to save them.
The experience left its mark on her by instilling some deeply held principles.
So you may imagine Bronwyn King’s horror when she found out she was funding the very industry that was responsible for those deaths.
Dr King is a radiation oncologist, who started out working in a lung cancer ward at Melbourne’s Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre. “Most of my patients were smokers or ex-smokers and despite us offering a high level of care, most of my patients died,” she told news.com.au. “For a junior doctor hoping to make an impact, it was just devastating.”
Ten years after that first terrible awakening, Dr King went to meet a representative from her super fund to discuss buying a home, and stumbled upon that fact she was funding the companies that had done this to her patients.
“I asked him, ‘Am I meant to tell you what to do with my money?’ He said, ‘No, you’re in the default option … there is a green option for those who have a problem with investing in mining, alcohol or tobacco.’
“I said, ‘So I’m currently investing in tobacco?’ He said, ‘Oh yes, everyone is.’”
It was the start of a long road for Dr King. Had she realised just how long, she wonders if she would ever have begun.
Once the 42-year-old began investigating, she realised that not only were super funds propping up Big Tobacco, but so was money from insurers, banks, pensions, fund managers and sovereign wealth funds. She believes passionately that this is “the missing piece of the puzzle on tobacco control.”
Australia has had huge success with plain packaging, taxes and other measures in reducing the national smoking rate to one of the lowest in the world. But with the powerful finance sector supporting the industry, there’s a massive roadblock in really achieving change.
Most importantly, Dr King was determined that the super fund used by doctors, nurses and other health workers should not fund tobacco products. “It hangs over us like a shadow,” she says. “You cannot escape the impact of tobacco, it’s everywhere. To know I owned the companies making the products killing my patients was just … I don’t have the words. In the end that was my money.
“At the moment, there’s no easy way to know what your money is being invested in.”
Dr King began a long campaign to change our super funds, meeting with CEO and finance leaders, who she found to be “overwhelmingly concerned”. Thanks to her efforts and those of the influential people who have helped her, almost half of Australian super funds are now tobacco free.
The Melburnian wants to push that even further. As CEO of Tobacco Free Portfolios, she is working with more than 100 financial organisations to change investment funds in the US, UK and Canada. Today sees the launch of her crowd-funding campaign to introduce a “Verified Tobacco Free” national certification — to make sure Australians know exactly where their money is going.
Now a specialist oncologist, Dr King holds an honorary position at Peter Mac because she spends so much time travelling in pursuit of making the finance sector accept its role in global tobacco control.
“I feel compelled to speak out for my patients who are unwell or have passed away,” she says.
“One little question has turned into a lifetime’s pursuit.”