Why divesting from tobacco stocks is pointless virtue signalling

Chris Snowdon
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There is no mechanism by which selling shares could deter a single person from smoking (Source: Getty)

This week marks the 10 year anniversary of the smoking ban in England, and tobacco is once again making headlines.

Not content with the government prohibiting smoking in public places, various funds and companies have bought into the ludicrous divestment movement which seeks to bring down industries by trading their shares.

The Guardian started the divestment trend, with its apparent belief that if you get rid of your shares in fossil fuel companies, you will somehow help prevent climate change.

Read more: Big investors warn against tobacco investment on World No Tobacco Day

Now Aviva, the insurance company, has announced that it will be selling off its tobacco stock in order to “limit the damage tobacco can cause to health”.

Various universities and local councils have also loudly proclaimed their intention to abandon their investments in “sindustries” such as alcohol, coal and weapons.

This virtue signalling is the emptiest of empty gestures, and, for those whose pensions rely on sound investments, it is an expensive one.

Tobacco stocks are a sound investment

Like it or not, tobacco stocks have outperformed almost every other form of investment since the turn of the millennium. Since 2000, the share price of Imperial Brands (formerly Imperial Tobacco) has risen 10-fold, while shares in British American Tobacco have risen 20-fold.

If Aviva believes that the tobacco market has peaked then they should sell, but that is not the view of most investors and it does not seem to be Aviva’s motive.

By publicising its divestment, the company seems to be reaching for the moral high ground, perhaps believing that future dividends are worth sacrificing for the sake of being viewed as an ethical investor.

Let us hope that there is nothing more to it than that, because the company would be deeply deluded if it thought that selling its shares in cigarette companies will have the slightest effect on cigarette consumption.

The most that can be achieved by divestment is a dip in the share price, but unless huge numbers of shares are dumped simultaneously, this will be barely perceptible on the stock market. And even if large scale divestment made the share price wobble, it would not affect the fundamentals of the business and could not possibly have any effect on consumption of the product.

Cigarette stocks affecting smoking? That's now how the market works

You have to wonder whether campaigners for divestment really understand how the stock market operates. From their rhetoric, you would think that Exxon Mobil and Philip Morris were startup companies looking to raise money by floating on the stock exchange, and that they can be starved of cash if people refuse to buy their shares.

This is obviously not how it works. Divesting from tobacco stock will have a negligible impact on the share price and will have absolutely no impact on either cigarette sales or company profits. There is no mechanism by which selling shares could deter a single person from smoking.

I am not in the business of forecasting how the stock market will perform in the future but it is a simple truth that any fund manager who has neglected tobacco shares in the last fifty years has missed a trick. They have consistently outperformed the rest of the market.

If anyone has been persuaded to sell their tobacco stock in the hope of lowering the smoking rate, it has been a futile act of economic self-harm.

People who disapprove of a company’s products are free to invest in something else; they may even feel morally obliged to invest in something else. But although selling your shares may make you feel virtuous, don’t pretend that you are changing anything.

Read more: A group of investors quit the tobacco industry, should others follow suit?

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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