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ABP under pressure over €1.5bn tobacco investments

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Employees of the Netherlands’ university medical centres (UMC) have called for their pension fund, ABP, to stop investing in the tobacco industry.

Jos Aartsen, chairman of the academic hospital UMC Groningen, spoke out during a conference entitled ‘Aiming for a smoke free health care sector’, organised by the Royal Dutch Medical Association earlier this week.

Aartsen complained that employees of academic hospitals as participants in ABP were effectively obliged to invest in the tobacco industry.

“I stand here on behalf of 70,000 employees of the eight UMCs. We are ashamed of these investments,” said Aartsen, quoted on the UMC Groningen website. “Investing in tobacco is not what we want.”

The Dutch Federation of University Medical Centers confirmed that all eight Dutch academic hospitals supported Aartsen’s call.

Aartsen acknowledged that tobacco companies can produce yields for investors.

“But every year, 20,000 people die unnecessarily because of smoking,” he added. “The fact these deaths are happening is more important than the return on investment in tobacco.”

Aartsen argued that it was a matter of social and governance responsibility for ABP to exclude tobacco.

Other funds had already excluded tobacco investments, he added, including healthcare pension fund PFZW and sector pension funds for GPs and for medical specialists.

ABP currently invests €1.5bn in tobacco-related assets, a spokesperson for the fund said. She pointed out that tobacco was legal in the Netherlands and regulated by the Dutch government.

The pension fund said it screened tobacco companies for issues involving child labour or unethical marketing practices. It also said it was in dialogue with several stakeholder organisations.

In addition, ABP was working on an “inclusion policy”, the spokesperson said. The next few years will see companies consciously chosen for the portfolio based on the criteria of return, risk, cost, sustainability, and accountability.

University medical centres are currently employer members of ABP, although there have been attempts to transfer this sector to PFZW, which caters for regular hospital staff.

A study by the Dutch Heart Foundation and the Association of Investors in Sustainable Development in March showed that more than two-thirds of pension funds didn’t have a policy in place for tobacco investments, compared to 10% of insurers.

It suggested the difference was attributable to the fact that many insurers also sell healthcare policies and have adjusted their investment policies accordingly.

The metalworkers pension scheme PME has excluded from its portfolio any companies that get more than 75% of their revenues from tobacco sales.

The €22bn multi-sector pension fund PGB is working on a similar policy, following a survey suggesting that just 17% of its participants supported tobacco investments.

PFZW ceased investing in cigarette manufacturers in 2013.

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