French insurance giant AXA (AXAHY) became the latest in a long line of investors to stub out their investments in the tobacco industry this week when it announced that the group's investment managers would be disposing of all tobacco portfolio holdings for good.
The group owns close to €1.8 billion ($2 billion) in tobacco assets, including €200,000 in equity investments and €1.6 billion in bonds. AXA did not disclose the identity of those tobacco companies whose securities it owns. The company noted that smoking poses the biggest threat to public health, and noted that the role of health insurance was shifting towards prevention.
"As a responsible health insurer and investor the AXA Group has decided to divest its tobacco industry assets," it said.
There are three global tobacco companies listed in Europe. U.K.-based British American Tobacco and Imperial Brands (IMBBY) are the largest, with market values of £77 billion ($111 billion) and £35 billion respectively, while Swedish Match is the smallest, with an equity value equivalent to $7 billion. The three companies have bonds with a face value of about $36 billion out.
Although another premier investment manager having joined the exodus from tobacco stocks, in the name of corporate responsibility, will hardly be celebrated in boardrooms across the industry, the direct impact of AXA's decision has been limited.
Shares of British American Tobacco and Imperial Brands were down by 0.3% in early trading, on a morning where the heavyweight FTSE 100 index was itself down by 0.1%. Swedish Match shares were off by 0.1%. British American Tobacco and Imperial Brands corporate bond prices were unchanged during early trading.
It is possible that the AXA investments targeted for disposal include securities issued by other prominent global cigarette producers, including Philip Morris (PM) - Get Report and Japan Tobacco (JAPAY) .
AXA will be the latest in a long line of investment managers to wrinkle their noses at the tobacco industry. The industry has previously been publicly rejected by other high-profile investors including the California State Teachers' Retirement System, the California Public Employees' Retirement System and part of Norway's sovereign wealth fund.
The announcement from AXA comes closely on the heels of a decision by the High Court in London to throw out a legal challenge against the U.K. government's plain packaging rules. The challenge was brought about by a consortium comprised of Japan Tobacco, Imperial Brands, British American Tobacco and Philip Morris.
In the U.K., it became law on Friday that all cigarettes must come with plain packages, a move which the tobacco industry believes violates the commercial rights of producers. Proponents of the laws believe that such a move will reduce the appeal of smoking to both existing smokers, as well as children and teenagers who are yet to take up the habit.
Australia was the first country to enforce mandatory plain packaging laws. According to the Australian Department of Health, tobacco consumption fell by 11% in the two years since plain packaging laws were introduced in 2012.