Cancer is main cause of death in Britain

BMJ 1998; 316 doi: (Published 21 February 1998) Cite this as: BMJ 1998;316:571
  1. Susan Mayor
  1. London

    Cancer has now overtaken heart disease as the leading cause of death in Britain.

    Figures released last week by the Cancer Research Campaign show that 156890 people in the United Kingdom died of cancer in 1996, compared with 148186 who died of coronary heart disease. This is a reversal of previous trends; heart disease has been the leading cause of death for many years. In 1992 it accounted for 163981 deaths compared with 158803 deaths from cancer.

    The change represents a 9.6% reduction in the number of deaths from heart disease. This is thought to be because people are acting on dietary advice to reduce the risk of coronary heart disease. The death rate from cancer has fallen, but more slowly, with a 1.2% reduction each year.

    Professor Gordon McVie, director general of the Cancer Research Campaign, said: “Cancer deaths have started to fall, but not as quickly as the rate of deaths from coronary heart disease—the most common heart problem in the UK.” He said that a major education initiative should now be targeted at reducing cigarette smoking, particularly in young people. “If we are to see the cancer death rate plummet at the same speed as the rate for heart disease we need to cut down the number of people who smoke.” Latest figures for 1996 show that 28% of people over the age of 16 smoke. Cigarette smoking is related to around one third of all cases of cancer.

    Dr Sandy Macara, chairman of the BMA council, said: “The good news is that people have got the messages about protecting themselves against heart disease. The bad news is that they still haven't taken on board the messages about smoking.”

    The figures were announced at the launch of the Cancer Research Campaign's web site (, which carries information about cancer and how people can protect themselves against the disease, and latest scientific and fundraising news from the charity.

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    A rise in lung cancer has affected mortality statistics


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