Richard Doll: 'Why was this evil business allowed to continue for so long?'

Saturday 08 February 2003 01:00
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I feel promoting smoking – encouraging people to smoke – is evil. I hesitate to say every evil should be banned but it should be discouraged, and that this evil went on so long is a very severe criticism of governments of all parties.

I don't expect banning advertising will make a dramatic difference but it will make some difference. The real problem is that people don't appreciate the risks. Regular smoking doubles the risk of death in adult life – equal to all other risks put together. Nobody really takes that in.

When we obtained the first results showing smoking caused lung cancer in 1950 we thought people would react quickly because lung cancer is a horrible disease. In fact, very little notice was taken of our research. The cancer advisory committee of the Ministry of Health said we had demonstrated an association, not a cause, and advised the Government to do nothing.

It was not until 1957 that the Medical Research Council publicly confirmed that smoking was indeed responsible for the rise in lung cancer. The Minister of Health announced that the Government accepted the evidence now – while he smoked a cigarette.

For years after that the tobacco industry, and the media, made the link seem controversial. Each time a report said smoking caused lung cancer a doctor would be found to say it was just statistics. I always assumed that when the information was available people would react and stop smoking. I smoked for 19 years, from 18 to 37, but gave up when we got the results from our first study in 1950.

Smoking did fall in the 1960s but very slowly. The tide began to turn with the 1962 Royal College of Physicians' report Smoking and Health. It was given two pages in The Times. I still thought education was all that was necessary because the consequences of smoking were so nasty, although highertaxation would have been helpful.

In the early 1970s, there was a noticeable change in the media's attitude. They stopped putting a contrary view each time they reported on the damaging effect of smoking. And TV presenters stopped smoking while describing the nasty effects. It was a very significant moment and smoking fell quite sharply. I realised then the impact of advertising and the media. You had to get them on your side.

Professor Sir Richard Doll published the first paper linking smoking with lung cancer in the British Medical Journal in 1950. He still works at Oxford University, aged 90, today.

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