TEDx Gateway 2018: Dr Bronwyn King, of Tobacco Free Portfolios, is leading an inspirational fight against lung cancer

Lung cancer is today the world’s leading cause of cancer death. It kills many more from cardiovascular and respiratory diseases (some six million a year) and is forecast to kill a billion by the end of this century, on average about 12 years early. Dr Bronwyn King’s Tobacco Free Portfolios works collaboratively with finance leaders across the globe to encourage them to reconsider commercial relationships with the tobacco industry and stand in solidarity with the global health and government sectors.

Tell us about your journey from being oncologist to working for Tobacco Free Portfolios?

In 2010 was a newly qualified specialist and delighted to have a full time job in the largest cancer center in Australia. I thought I would work there forever – as a clinician and educator. That was until I accidentally discovered that my compulsory pension fund was investing my money in tobacco – the very product responsible for the death of so many of my patients. From that moment, my career took an unexpected trajectory and I’m still in flight – somewhere between ‘oncologist’ and ‘CEO’ – that’s CEO of a unique charity that is addressing the greatest preventable cause of death.

Tobacco Free Portfolios works collaboratively with finance leaders across the globe to encourage them to reconsider commercial relationships with the tobacco industry and stand in solidarity with the global health and government sectors. As an oncologist I can speak first-hand about the devastating impact of tobacco on my patients. While everyone knows tobacco is bad – the true impact is quite hidden – for example, most people would have no idea that 19,178 people die every day from tobacco.

What are the problems and issues faced during the implementation of the project?

The tobacco industry is a formidable foe. The problem I am addressing cannot be fixed in my lifetime – that’s the reality – so I need to have long-term vision to stay motivated and optimistic. There is very little interest in funding tobacco control. Many people mistakenly think the problem is already fixed – but in fact – the problem hasn’t even peaked yet! So for us – we are only a team of three and my husband and I have had to personally fund a great deal of the work – despite ongoing concerted efforts to find support. In the UK we are very fortunate to have secured support from Cancer Research UK – who fund our UK and European director – Dr Rachel Melsom. We’d love to find further support so we can expand our reach.

What do you think is the biggest transition required in the society?

This work has really proven the idea that we are all living in silos. Moving from the health sector into the finance sector has given me unique insight into this. In the health sector – virtually nobody would dream of investing in tobacco, yet in the finance sector – that is a relatively new concept that requires hours and hours of discussion and debate. Yet we are all the same people who mostly want the same things – a healthy future for us and our children. Cross sector collaboration is vital. You can’t address the really big global challenges with one sector of society missing. Everyone needs to be on the same page.

Whom would you attribute your success to?

Patients – their suffering drives me. Most of my lung cancer patients are now deceased so I feel compelled to tell their stories to create change.

Mentors – including Professor David Ball – the head of the lung cancer unit at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre in Melbourne. He has devoted his life to trying to improve outcomes for lung cancer patients. Another wonderful mentor – Leigh Nugent, my former swimming coach and former head coach of swimming Australia – taught me about hard work and never giving up.

Family – for supporting me at every step on the rather unusual journey that I’m taking! The Tobacco Free Portfolios Global Advisory Council – this is a group of eminent global leaders providing their support and advice. They have helped to connect us to finance leaders across the globe and opened doors we could never open ourselves.

What do you think are the required at the global level?

The plans are to hold a high level meeting during this year’s United Nations General Assembly, to shine a spot on the new collaboration between the global finance, health and government sectors. Continue working with global finance leaders – leaders of major banks, insurers, pension funds, fund managers and Sovereign Wealth Funds, to encourage tobacco-free finance. Launch the Verified Tobacco-Free initiative – where tobacco-free financial organisations sign up to be audited – and if they are tobacco-free they can display the Verified Tobacco-Free logo for members and the public to see.

Achievement – Tobacco free world

  • In the past two years more than 80 leading financial organisations in 11 countries controlling trillions of USD have implemented tobacco free policies spanning investment, lending and insurance.
  • In Australia – where the work began – 60% of funds under management (with funds under management approaching 1 Trillion Australian dollars) in the Australian pension industry are now tobacco-free.
  • A total of around US $12 billion has been shifted away from investment in tobacco.
  • Tobacco Control Ambassador for Cancer Council Australia, an Australia Day Ambassador, and an Ambassador for Big Brothers Big Sisters Australia.

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