HL Deb 27 June 1957 vol 204 cc452-5

3.55 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave of the House to interrupt our Business to enable me to make a statement on the subject of lung cancer and smoking similar to that which is now being made in another place.

In their Annual Report, and more particularly in their special report on tobacco smoking and cancer of the lung (which will be available in the Printed Paper Office at 5 o'clock this evening), the Medical Research Council have advised the Government that the most reasonable interpretation of the very great increase in deaths from lung cancer in males during the past twenty-five years is that a major part of it is caused by smoking tobacco, particularly heavy cigarette smoking. The Council point to the evidence derived from investigations in many countries in support of this conclusion, in particular to identification of several carcinogenic substances in tobacco smoke.

The Government feel that it is right to ensure that this latest authoritative opinion is brought effectively to public notice, so that everyone may know the risks involved in smoking. The Government consider that these facts should be made known to all those with responsibility for health education. The Minister of Education included in his recently published Handbook for Teachers on Health Education advice about the dangers of smoking and he is circulating copies of this statement to local education authorities and education authorities generally. Corresponding action will be taken by the Scottish Education Department in Scotland. The Government now propose to bring these views to the notice of the local health authorities who are concerned under Statute in the prevention of illness and who are responsible for health education as a means of prevention. Local health authorities will be asked to take appropriate steps to inform the general public and in this task they will have the assistance of the Central and Scottish Councils for Health Education. Once the risks are known, everyone who smokes will have to measure them and make up his or her own mind, and must be relied upon as a responsible person to act as seems best.

The Medical Research Council are at present supporting an extensive programme of work designed to discover the way in which tobacco smoke exerts its effect and the relative importance of other factors, such as atmospheric pollution, which may also play a part in the causation of lung cancer. The recent expansion of this programme has been greatly assisted by a substantial grant made in 1954 by a leading group of tobacco manufacturers. On the advice of my right honourable friend the Minister of Health's predecessor, the present Minister of Labour, this sum was given to the Medical Research Council with complete discretion as to the choice of research projects to be supported and to the publication of results.

The work at present in progress consists largely of chemical and biological studies of the many different constituents of tobacco smoke and atmospheric pollution. In addition, surveys of the rôle of atmospheric pollution and of specific industrial hazards in the causation of the disease are being undertaken. Work along these lines is being supported in many centres in different parts of the country and the Council have also established as part of their own organisation three new research groups in Exeter, London and Sheffield, where long-term studies of different aspects of the problem are being carried out. Every opportunity will be taken by the Medical Research Council to pursue any promising new lines of research which may become apparent.


My Lords, we are obliged to the noble Lord for making a similar statement to that made on behalf of the Government in another place. No one can afford to underestimate the importance of the statement that has been made. Of course, the wording, as I look at it now (the noble Lord was kind enough to furnish me with a copy of the statement), wants careful examination before one draws any final conclusion. The Medical Research Council have apparently advised the Government that the most reasonable interpretation of the very great increase in deaths from lung cancer in males during the past twenty-five years is that a major part of it"— those are important words— is caused by smoking tobacco, particularly heavy cigarette smoking. I am always very doubtful about the word "reasonable" when it is included in a matter like this. There have been many arguments in the courts from time to time as to the proper interpretation to put on the word "reasonable". But the conclusion by the Medical Research Council that "a major part" of the increase has been due to tobacco smoking is a much more serious question.

It is apparent, too, that the steps the Government may quite properly be taking to see that this information is broadcast in educational circles, and the like, must have certain reactions. The first thought I have is for the workers in the tobacco industry. That is a large and important industry in the country in which a great deal of employment is given. Surely it is a matter for some consideration by the Government as to whether any steps can be taken to deal with any marked increase of redundancy that may become apparent in that industry. As to those who have large investments in the tobacco industry, I am afraid there would be no possibility of providing any adequate remedy for a reduction of their capital assets.

I hope your Lordships will not think it an impertinence if I say that I personally do not feel so alarmed about it as perhaps some people think I should. I am now seventy-two years of age. I have been smoking for fifty-eight years—I started very young. I have smoked a lot of cigarettes; I have smoked even more pipe tobacco; and when opportunity has afforded I have smoked plenty of cigars. I imagine that I should be described by most medical officers as a very heavy smoker. I am a little concerned when I think of all the other contingent factors in the general life of man which may contribute at least as much, if not more in some cases, to the development of cancer, a disease about which we still know far too little for us to be confident of known and efficient remedies. But, as I say, for myself I am not greatly alarmed about it. On the other hand, if it is finally proved that there is a definite contribution to lung cancer by smoking, then I think the Government are quite right to circulate the information in the widest possible sense, and the Minister of Education (who has just come into the Chamber) has apparently already taken some steps in the matter—there will be no quarrel with that. In the meantime, I hope that some inquiries will be made by the Minister of Labour, who obviously was interested in this matter previously as Minister of Health, to see what kind of effect there might be in the way of redundancy in the tobacco industry and to make such provisions as can be thought of.


My Lords, I can assure the noble Viscount that the Minister of Labour will watch the situation most carefully.