LONDON (AP) The British Cabinet received early warnings about the link between smoking and lung cancer more than 50 years ago but viewed the threat as minor and did little for fear of losing tax revenue, according to documents released Friday.
The grim portrait is drawn from previously secret reports of an April 19, 1956, Cabinet meeting. The handwritten notes, taken by Cabinet Secretary Sir Norman Brook, were released by the National Archives.
The meeting was held two years after scientists first published research linking smoking to lung cancer, and one year before the British Medical Research Council found "a direct causal connection" between smoking and the lethal disease
Most of the notes dealt with problems in the Middle East and a deepening economic malaise gripping Britain, but the brief section titled "Smoking and Lung Cancer" revealed the cavalier approach to the possible public health risks of cigarette use that prevailed at the time, both in Europe and the United States.
The discussion began with Minister of Health Robert Turton telling his colleagues about increased pressure for a public warning campaign because of advice from a medical committee about the dangers of smoking.
He said he was personally opposed because of the lack of proof that smoking was dangerous.
During the meeting, Treasury chief Harold Macmillan who later became prime minister expressed concern about the impact a warning might have on the government's tax revenues. He also downplayed the alleged health risks.
The future leader, citing the relatively high taxes on tobacco use, called it "a very serious issue" because of the potential reduction in tax collection.
"Not easy to see how to replace it," the Cabinet notes read in the terse description of Macmillan's comments.
"Expectation of life: 73 for smoker and 74 for nonsmoker," they continued. "Treasury think revenue interest outweighs this. Negligible compared with risk of crossing a street."
The Cabinet discussed whether it was "necessary to expose facts" and eventually decided not to take action and to wait for another report.
"It does seem complacent to us today, but that's with hindsight," said Mark Dunton, contemporary specialist with the National Archives. "Macmillan is very upfront about it. He just thinks the revenue is too good to let go of."
Scientific evidence of smoking's adverse health effects had been piling up on both sides of the Atlantic since before World War II.
In the United States during the 1950s the risks associated with smoking were the focus of a growing number of studies by well-regarded hospitals and the National Cancer Institute along with numerous newspapers reports.
But it wasn't until the 1960s that governments in the United States and Britain were finally stirred to serious action. In 1962 Britain's Royal College of Physicians found that cigarette smoking caused lung cancer, a conclusion adopted two years later by the U.S. Surgeon General. Health warnings and bans on television advertisements followed within the next decade.