Smoking? It's seriously good for the Treasury, Macmillan told Eden

Puffing away on his briar, Harold Macmillan appeared every inch the avuncular, dependable politician of the age. Indeed, from Winston Churchill to Harold Wilson, smoking, whether it be cigar or pipe (though rarely cigarette) was seen as an invaluable prop for leading political figures emerging into the television era.

So when, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, "Supermac" was asked by senior colleagues whether it was time the British public should be the target of a hard-hitting campaign warning about the iniquities of nicotine, it was perhaps inevitable he was willing to downplay the threat.

According to formerly classified government records released today by the National Archives, in 1956 Macmillan dismissed the health risks posed by smoking as "negligible, compared with the risk of crossing a street".

The enthusiastic pipe, cigar and cigarette smoker, it seems, was unconvinced over the scientific data emerging from the pioneering work of the epidemiologist Richard Doll, which had already established a firm link between smoking and cancer.

The view from No 11 Downing Street was quite clearly that the tax revenues generated by tobacco easily outweighed the possible danger to public health.

Macmillan was responding to remarks made to Sir Anthony Eden's cabinet by the Health minister Robert Turton. Despite seeing no conflict in being photographed by the press while smoking shortly before answering Commons questions on the issue, Turton had insisted to the cabinet that medical advice was to "constantly inform the public of the facts" about smoking and lung cancers. However, his caveat that there was not yet "scientific proof" of the hazards would have alarmed the growing anti-smoking lobby, and so he conceded that the "statistical picture is clear" and said the Government's draft statement on the issue appeared "restrained".

According to the shorthand notes taken by the Cabinet Secretary Sir Norman Brook and released yesterday, Turton warned that the drafted statement "won't satisfy at all. Will be much criticism. Pressure for a warning campaign."

Eden, then on the verge of his own personal cataclysm in the form of the Suez invasion, responded by saying that the "time is arrived when we should decide whether we have a line".

But Macmillan warned that this was a "very serious issue. Revenue = 3/6d on income tax: not easy to see how to replace it." He added: "Expectation of life 73 for smoker and 74 for non-smoker. Treasury think revenue interest outweighs this. Negligible compared with risk of crossing a street." The government resolved to wait until later in the year, when another medical report was due. The report found those who smoked more than 25 cigarettes a day were 50 times more likely to contract cancer.

For his part, Macmillan continued to smoke, and apparently suffered no ill effects. He was forced to stand down as prime minister in 1963 when he was wrongly diagnosed with prostate cancer. Macmillan lived another two decades – eventually dying a month short of his 93rd birthday.

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