THE Victorian government is investing more than $100 million in tobacco companies despite efforts to reduce smoking rates in the community.
The state government's investment management organisation, the Victorian Funds Management Corporation, says of its investment assets, worth $37.9 billion, that 0.3 per cent is placed in the tobacco industry.
This brings its tobacco investment to about $117 million — nearly four times the New South Wales government's allocation of $30 million.
The VFMC manages investments for public sector organisations including insurers and superannuation funds. Clients include the Department of Health, the Transport Accident Commission, Victorian Managed Insurance Authority, WorkSafe, the Royal Children's Hospital and the University of Melbourne.
The head of client services for the corporation, Malcolm Ashbolt, said although it had decided to stop investing in cluster munitions in recent years, it had no intention of divesting in tobacco companies, which were chosen by external investment managers, not the VFMC.
He said the group's main objective was to provide funds management services to the state in a "commercially effective, efficient and competitive manner".
Doctors and health groups said the investment was outrageous and hypocritical when governments were trying to reduce the damage tobacco caused to people's health.
The executive director of Quit Victoria, Fiona Sharkie, called for the government to abandon its investment because it undermined Australia's tobacco control measures including plain packaging.
"It's really in conflict with the governments' health objectives. Tobacco has been on the health agenda for the federal and state governments for years, so on the one hand they're saying we're investing in tobacco control but on the other hand they're saying we're investing in the companies," she said.
The chief executive of Action on Smoking and Health Australia, Anne Jones, said if the VFMC abandoned investments in cluster munitions, it should pull its money out of tobacco companies.
"Cluster bombs injure and kill about 17,000 people a year and tobacco kills just under 6 million people a year worldwide," she said.
Ms Jones said deaths caused by tobacco were predicted to reach 10 million by 2025, with most of the deaths in poor and middle-income earning countries.
"It's outrageous. These are countries we are sending AusAID to to reduce tobacco diseases," she said.
Dr Bronwyn King, a radiation oncologist at Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre who successfully lobbied a superannuation company to drop its investments in tobacco this year, also called for the Victorian government to follow suit. "As a cancer doctor, every single day I see the devastating effects tobacco has on individuals and their families," she said.
While the NSW government committed to reviewing its investment in tobacco companies this week, a spokeswoman for Victorian Treasurer Kim Wells would not comment on the matter except to say the VFMC was required to invest in accordance with its commercial objectives.
"Under legislation, the Treasurer cannot direct the VFMC in relation to an investment decision," she said.