Tobacco Transformation Index – In conflict or complementary?

The Foundation’s Tobacco Transformation Index (the “Index”) will provide quantifiable evidence over time of the steps the largest tobacco companies are taking to achieve a world free of combustible cigarettes and other high-risk tobacco products and actions they take to impede that progress. Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Stopping Tobacco Organizations and Products (STOP) supports the Global Tobacco Industry Interference Index. Tobacco Free Portfolios strives to eliminate tobacco from investment portfolios—and refers to the Index (previously named the Smoke-Free Index) as a direct challenge to its objectives, advising signatories not to engage with the Foundation or the Index.

At face value, Tobacco Free Portfolios, STOP, and the Foundation offer widely divergent points of view. I believe their programs are complementary.

First, Tobacco Free Portfolios, funded by Cancer Research UK, The Danish Cancer Society, and other supporters aims to reduce and ultimately eliminate investment in tobacco. Investors that do not wish to own tobacco company debt and equity are certainly free to do so. However, not all investors will make this choice. As a result, the act of selling (or not buying) an investment for non-financial reasons may only create a better buying opportunity for someone else. For example, a report by Wilshire Associates, the general investment consultant for The California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS), estimates that the pension system lost $3.581 billion in investment gains by divesting from tobacco stocks during a 17-plus-year period ending June 30, 2018. Deutsche Asset Management suggests that an investor agenda for tobacco, including both divestment and engagement strategies, may emerge, since divestment on its own is unlikely to change tobacco industry practices.

Second, the Global Tobacco Industry Interference Index monitors “governments’ efforts to tackle tobacco industry interference” and ranks 33 countries across multiple factors. The factors include industry interference in policy development, benefits enjoyed by the tobacco industry, unnecessary interactions, transparency, and more. In the 2019 report, the UK was awarded the best score, Japan the worst. The technique is similar to that applied by the World Health Organization MPOWER policies, also funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies, which monitors countries’ implementation of the measures. Interestingly, the UK and Japan have both experienced a decline in smoking rates, driven in part by changes outside the tobacco control regulatory realm—namely through product innovation associated with e-cigarettes (UK) and heated tobacco products (Japan). That said, attempting to rate, rank, and otherwise influence policy makers plays a valuable role.

Finally, the Tobacco Transformation Index will use objective data on company behavior to measure whether tobacco companies are changing or not. The Index draws upon ideas developed by the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) and other environmental, social, and governance (ESG) methodologies applied to a diverse range of sectors. Michael Bloomberg is a supporter of SASB in the role of Chair Emeritus, and SASB covers the tobacco industry. The Index will leverage market forces driven by consumer demand, empower investors with data that are material to change, and engage with the tobacco companies while identifying bad practices based on evidence. The Foundation for a Smoke-Free World funds the Index. The Foundation is funded by Philip Morris International.

Upon closer review, the three approaches are complementary in the effort to reduce the premature death and disease caused by smoking.

Tobacco Free Portfolios recognizes the need to accelerate change and the opportunity to invest in accordance with one’s conscience. This effort has moral value, even if it will not achieve the goal of eliminating tobacco use. The strategy also attracts activism and media attention to the deadly impact of smoking at a time when attention and interest have dwindled.

The Global Tobacco Industry Interference Index focuses on governments, acknowledging that “governments’ efforts to tackle tobacco industry interference have been progressing slowly and are far from satisfactory.” In our view, this strategy can be even bolder, including the effects of state tobacco monopolies on government policies, and governments’ effectiveness to enforce laws – something that remains problematic in many developing countries.

A central point of contention across the programs relates to engagement with the tobacco companies, as reflected by the interpretation of Article 5.3 of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. The STOP Global Tobacco Industry Interference Index report states, “Article 5.3 is regarded as the backbone of the Convention and its importance cannot be over-emphasised,” and the “tobacco industry must be denormalized.” To the extent Article 5.3 is interpreted to mean boycott and ban, it has paradoxically become an impediment to change, thereby perpetuating the status quo.

The Tobacco Transformation Index theory of change is predicated on market forces, constructive engagement, and competition. Despite the apparent differences, the various tools discussed in this report can and likely will contribute in a complementary manner toward the end goal of reducing the premature death and disease caused by smoking.

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