Celebrating 5 Years of Tobacco Free Portfolios: A Global Milestone with Ethical Commitment to Humankind
“After having regarded for many years as a scientifically subsidiary or anomalous element of the universe, humankind will in the end be recognized as a fundamental phenomenon—the supreme phenomenon of nature: that in which, in a unique complexity of material and moral factors, one of the principal acts of universal evolution is not only experienced but lived by us”
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, “The Phenomenon of Man” (1938)
Five years ago, at the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), the Tobacco Free Portfolios Pledge (TFP) initiative was launched. A lot has been accomplished since then. TFP, by working collaboratively with the world’s largest financial organizations, has contributed to a dramatic shift in recent years with dozens of leading financial organizations from more than 20 countries implementing tobacco-free finance policies – spanning lending, investment, and insurance.
This year, at the sidelines of the 2023 UNGA, the 5-year anniversary of TFP will be celebrated under the co-sponsorship of the governments of France, Jamaica, and the Netherlands. The event will see the participation of the Ministers of Health of France, Jamaica, and Qatar; the Director General of Health of the Ministries of Health of Netherlands and New Zealand; the Director for Public Health of the Nigeria Federal Ministry of Health; the Director General for the United Nations of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Mexico; the former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ecuador and current Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Global UN Partnership for Inclusive Information and Communication Technologies (UNITAR); and the Assistant Director-General of the World Health Organization. Pledge Signatories and Supporters will also join in commemorating this milestone.
This celebration signifies not only a milestone to advance the global health and environmental protection agendas but also a global commitment to ethics, sustainability, and the well-being of humanity and the planet, all of which have great relevance in dealing currently with severe megathreats that are imperiling our future.
In this blog, I will discuss why this celebration matters and the potential profound impact of tobacco-free investments on public health, the environment, and the future of responsible finance. I will do so all through the lens of the late French theologian and scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s philosophy on ethics and human development, who argued that ethical choices and actions were not only essential for individual moral growth but also played a central role in the collective evolution of humanity. That is, he saw ethics as a compass guiding humanity toward progress, unity, and the realization of its highest potential. So, let’s delve into how celebrating the 5-year anniversary of Tobacco Free Portfolios, especially within the context of the UNGA and with the active participation of global leaders, aligns with these profound ideas.
Ethical investment is of paramount importance for shaping human development. Celebrating Tobacco Free Portfolios highlights a growing trend in finance that prioritizes companies and industries with positive societal impacts. It sends a clear message that profit should not come at the expense of public health and environmental degradation. This celebration reflects the belief that ethical behavior is essential for individual and collective progress. Hence, the ethical dimension of Tobacco Free Portfolios echoes and reinforces the view that ethical choices and actions contribute to the betterment of humanity and the realization of our highest potential.
Improved Public Health
The emphasis on ethical choices finds resonance in the celebration of Tobacco Free Portfolios. Tobacco use remains a leading cause of ill health, suffering, and preventable deaths worldwide--more than 8.7 million deaths per year are attributed to tobacco use globally, a number that exceeds the total 6.96 million deaths reported during the entire COVID-19 pandemic. By excluding investments from an industry that profits from products linked to these health issues, Tobacco Free Portfolios contributes to a global reduction in tobacco-attributable diseases, premature deaths, and disability, as well as their significant direct and indirect economic costs on individual, families, and countries. In doing so, TFP exemplifies Teilhard de Chardin’s belief in ethical decisions that prioritize the well-being of others, leading to improved public health and individual flourishing, that are the core of human capital development.
While the devastating public health consequences of tobacco use are widely understood and documented, few people appreciate that tobacco use also has profoundly negative environmental impacts as shown by existing evidence. For example, cigarette butts are the world’s most frequently littered item, with estimates that more than five trillion butts are discarded each year, ending up on beaches and in waterways. Tobacco filters – made of cellulose acetate - are the number one ocean plastic, more numerous than plastic bottles, plastic bags, or plastic straws. Butts pollute waterways where they dissipate into microplastics and enter the food chain. They also leach a dangerous suite of chemicals that place water quality at risk. Similarly, the disposal of parts in e-cigarettes such as cartridges that are specifically not reusable or recyclable, are now adding to the waste generated after the consumption of tobacco products.
The celebration of Tobacco Free Portfolios, therefore, resonates with ecological consciousness, especially within the context of the UNGA. The tobacco industry’s adverse environmental impact runs counter to the principles of sustainability that are at the core of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Tobacco Free Portfolios promotes the protection of our planet by avoiding investments in an industry that harms the environment, which is vital for the health of our planet and future generations.
Setting a Precedent
Celebrating the 5-year milestone of Tobacco Free Portfolios sets an essential precedent for responsible investing, reflecting Teilhard de Chardin’s vision of collective evolution. It encourages other investors and financial institutions to consider divestment from industries that undermine human development and the environment, promoting a more conscientious, ethical, and impactful approach to finance. This celebration reflects Teilhard de Chardin’s idea that ethical choices are integral to humanity’s journey towards progress and unity.
Marking the anniversary of Tobacco Free Portfolios raises awareness about the harmful consequences of tobacco and the transformative power of investment decisions. It reminds individuals and organizations, as well as governments and the population at large, of the influence they possess to drive positive change through their investment choices. This celebration inspires conversations about the ethical dimensions of finance, encouraging more investors to align their portfolios with their values, and the enormous impact of ordinary actions guided by ethics.
The 5-year anniversary of Tobacco Free Portfolios, celebrated within the context of the UNGA and with the active participation of nations and leaders, as well as investors and supporters, is not just a financial milestone; it’s a global celebration of our commitment to improving public health, safeguarding the environment, promoting ethical investing, setting precedents for responsible finance, and raising awareness about the impact of our investment decisions. It reaffirms that finance can be a force for good and echoes Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s vision of ethics propelling human development towards a more harmonious and interconnected world. In celebrating this milestone, we honor not only the progress made but also the potential for a more ethical and sustainable future through responsible investment choices.
In sum, the TFP celebration at the UNGA this year is a timely reminder that the cumulative harmful impacts of tobacco on human capital and the environment are substantial and require renewed attention by policy makers and the financial markets. If we fail to act now as a global community, we run the risk of contributing to undermining human life itself, and more ominously, to aggravate the plight of the poor and the vulnerable, who face a daily struggle to survive.
So, at this UNGA, let’s all commit to support the movement to a tobacco-free finance future by raising awareness and calling mainstream financial actors across banking, insurance, pension plans, sovereign wealth funds, asset managers, and individual investors to sign the TFP Pledge and adopt tobacco exclusions in their investment decisions.