Britain's cancer czar is in an embarrassing skirmish with the British Medical Journal after a press statement in which he appeared to criticise the Government cancer strategy for which he is responsible.

Professor Michael Richards, appointed to lead a national drive to reduce cancer deaths, appeared to say there was little hope of achieving 100,000 fewer deaths in under-75s by 2010, set out in last year's White Paper Saving Lives.

Professor Richards was the main author of a paper in the BMJ which calculated cancer survival improved by 3.3 per cent between 1981 and 1985, compared with 1986 to 1990, equivalent to 17,000 lives saved.

Professor Richards and colleagues reckoned 24,000 sufferers under 75 would be saved by 2010, a quarter of the Government's target of 100,000 fewer deaths. The best hope of meeting the target lay in reducing inequalities in cancer survival between rich and poor, rather than in improvements in treatment, the paper said.

A BMJ press release said the targets would be missed "unless [the Government] tackles social inequalities", to save 13,000 more deaths every five years.

Health department officials demanded a retraction. The release had been approved by Dr Michel Coleman, head of the cancer unit at the London School of Hygiene and one of the paper's authors, but he had not shown it to Professor Richards. Yesterday, the BMJ said the Government's target of 100,000 fewer deaths was three targets - "60,000 lives saved through prevention, 20,000 through early detection by screening and 20,000 by improvements in survival."

The revised statement claimed the projected figure of 24,000 is ahead of the Government's target. A source said: "The Health Department was jumping up and down. Seldom have the dead been converted so rapidly into the living."