From the archives: Minister warns smokers over cancer risk

From the archives: Minister warns smokers over cancer risk

8 May 1956

The Minister of Health, Mr R. H. Turton, yesterday confirmed that there are twenty times more deaths from cancer of the lung among heavy smokers than among non-smokers. This statistical evidence, he said, had been collected from this and other countries.

Giving as his authority the chairman of a committee of the Medical Research Council which has been investigating the subject, he emphasised what he called “statistically an incontrovertible association between cigarette smoking and lung cancer.” The fact that as yet no causal agent had been recognised should not be allowed to obscure this.

The Minister’s information was part of a statement to the House of Commons on smoking and lung cancer. He repeated what he had said in an earlier statement that two known cancer-producing agents have been identified in tobacco smoke, but added that it is not yet certain whether they play a direct part in producing lung cancer. He promised that when new information becomes available he himself would make it public.

He rejected the idea of a national publicity campaign put forward by Mr Donald Chapman. He thought it would not be appropriate “at the present state of our knowledge,” but he willingly agreed that that was a decision he would have to review as fresh information came in.

Mr Turton felt it important neither to minimise nor exaggerate the size of the problem. He gave a few statistics to make plain the true position. The number of deaths from cancer of the lung has risen to 2,286 in 1931 to 12,271 last year, he said. To place these figures in perspective, he pointed out that in 1954 out of every thousand deaths of men aged between 45 and 74, 77 were from bronchitis, 112 from strokes and apoplexies, and 234 were from cancer, of which 85 were cancer of the lung. He added that the number of women who die from cancer of the lung is still a small fraction of the total.

Another point which Mr Turton confirmed was that according to the latest research the risk of lung cancer is “substantially less” among pipe smokers than among heavy cigarette smokers, though pipe smokers do still face a heavier risk than non-smokers.

Mr Vaughan Morgan asked him how those who give up smoking are affected, and Mr Turton said cautiously that “there is some evidence that the risks of contracting cancer of the lung decrease when smoking is given up.” The Minister was unable to differentiate in his statistics between those smokers who inhale and those who do not. He was afraid that was beyond the capacity of statisticians.

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