It Takes an Oncologist: A New and Promising Tobacco Control Initiative

August 14, 2018

People continue to be surprised when I tell them that smoking is the second leading cause of death in the world, more than any other single preventable risk factor. But then, most of the people I talk with do not face this death toll on a daily basis . . . the way oncologists do.

Maybe that is why oncologists seem to be playing a leading role in some of today’s most important initiatives to reduce smoking. Dr. Tabaré Vasquez, an oncologist, became President of Uruguay and enacted one of the world’s most comprehensive tobacco control programs—so prominent that it attracted a multi-million dollar lawsuit by Philip Morris. Less well known (so far) is Dr. Bronwyn King, a practicing oncologist and founder of Tobacco Free Portfolios. King and her colleagues will be launching The Tobacco-Free Finance Pledge this September in New York at a High-Level forum to accompany the UN General Assembly, co-sponsored by the governments of France and Australia. You should consider getting your organization to sign it.

When I first met Bronwyn last year, she told me how she was appalled when she realized her pension was invested in the very tobacco company stocks that were profiting from the deaths of her patients. She contacted the pension fund and eventually convinced them to divest tobacco company shares. But she didn’t stop there. She also started an organization, Tobacco Free Portfolios (TFP) which has successfully persuaded banks and pension funds—including BNP Paribas, AXA, and Natixis—that investing in Tobacco stocks is not only unethical but financially imprudent. As of August 2018, TFP reports that approximately 70% of funds under management in Australian pension funds (more than AU $1 Trillion) are now tobacco-free.

King describes the aim of the Tobacco Free Finance Pledge as an effort to "shine a spotlight on the leading financial organizations that have moved to tobacco-free finance and to encourage others to follow suit. The Pledge is a good-spirited initiative aiming to help bring an end to the global tobacco epidemic."

For my part, I would describe it as an important extension of tobacco control efforts which have conventionally focused on reducing demand through interventions like public education, restrictions on smoking in public places, and excise taxes. By contrast, public policy has made less progress in making the sale of this addictive toxic product less profitable. 

If enough financial organizations adopt the Tobacco Free Finance Pledge, tobacco companies will find it more difficult to do business in terms of raising capital, floating bonds, or purchasing insurance. They may also find it more difficult to find peers who excuse them for pursuing business plans which ostensibly claim to serve existing smokers but which clearly require hooking new generations of children on this addictive product to justify their long-term investments and financial projections.

So, if you hold a prominent position in your organization, I strongly encourage you to read TFP’s toolkit, review The Pledge, and sign the pledge with other Founding Signatories (for financial organizations) or Founding Supporters (for all other organizations). I’m sure Dr. King and her team would be eager to hear from you if you have any questions. I’ll be watching TFP’s progress and wider reaction to the Pledge this fall in New York. I hope to see you there.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.