Education And Debate

The price of coffins: specious arguments by eminent doctors against the dangers of tobacco

BMJ 1999; 319 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.319.7225.1621 (Published 18 December 1999) Cite this as: BMJ 1999;319:1621
  1. P Cowen, retired senior lecturer
  1. 22 Congreve Way, Bardsey, Leeds LS17 9BG

    One does not avert death by ignoring the price of coffins.

    Ernest Bramah, Kailung Unrolled His Mat

    In June 1957 the BBC radio news reported on a white paper, prepared by Doll and Hill, which had been presented to parliament.1 The paper claimed that cigarette smoking appreciably increased a person's risk of developing lung cancer, with the incidence increasing in proportion to the number of cigarettes smoked. This news was published in a statement by the Medical Research Council,2 which referred to Doll and Hill's findings published in the BMJ and the Lancet. The minister of health at the time was asked in parliament what he intended to do about the findings His response was “nothing” (which was the case) and that it was up to the medical officers of health to act on this information as they saw fit.

    Summary points

    Good evidence shows that smoking causes lung cancer

    The media's response to this information was initially resistant

    Specious arguments were used to detract from the real issue, which confused the general public and lessened its concern

    After 40 years there has been little change in smoking rates

    Responses to the white paper

    Having smoked over 20 cigarettes a day for 11 years I was alarmed by this information and decided to stop immediately; I have not smoked since. Shortly after quitting I began to take an interest in the response to the white paper and was surprised by what I found. In general, newspaper articles reflected resistance to the findings—for example, the chairman of the Tobacco Workers Trade Union was reported in the tabloid press about 1960 as saying that cigarettes alone could not be blamed for lung cancer as no …

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