The UK National Archives have just released notes of cabinet meetings that took place over 50 years ago, from 1955 to 1956, among which are minutes of a meeting where the British prime minister and cabinet colleagues first reviewed emerging evidence of a statistical link between smoking and lung cancer and made the decision to wait and see rather than mount a public campaign.

On 19th April, 1956, the Cabinet discussed seven items, “Smoking and Lung Cancer” being the last, following discussions on the internal security of Singapore (which was still a crown colony in the British Empire at the time), and preserving control of British Guiana during its transition to representative government in federation with other Caribbean territories.

The meeting took place two years after the publication of evidence of a link between smoking and lung cancer, according to a report by the Associated Press. However, in the cabinet minutes, this is described as statistical evidence, rather than scientific “proof”, and that is why they made the decision to wait and see.

Earlier in that meeting, the cabinet had already talked about a visit by Soviet leaders, whether a joint parliamentary delegation should go to Cyprus, their tactics on a reading of the bill to abolish the death penalty and French arms exports to Israel.

The minutes were handwritten by Cabinet Secretary Sir Norman Brook, and the National Archives have also released a typed transcript.

One’s impression on reading the minutes, was that the decision to wait and see was probably influenced by Harold Macmillan, an enthusiastic pipe and cigar smoker, who as Chancellor of the Exchequer reminded his colleagues of the significant contribution that tobacco made to tax revenues, and that this outweighed the negligible risk of smoking (based on the evidence available at the time, which had not yet shown a direct causal link).

The discussion on smoking and lung cancer began with Robert Turton, Minister for Health (who had just come into the room), informing his colleagues about increased pressure to mount a public awareness campaign because a medical committee had just released advice on the dangers of smoking.

Turton is quoted as saying that “Statistical picture is clear : scientific no progress”, and that “Draft statement is restrained. Won’t satisfy all. Will be much criticism.” Turton advised against a public campaign “because of lack of scientific proof”.

The Prime Minister, Anthony Eden, appears concerned that the government doesn’t have a view, and is quoted as saying, “Time is arrived when we shd. decide wtr we have a line. Public opinion will now expect more than a progress report.”

Macmillan says it is a serious issue, and mentions the tax revenue. He is quoted as saying “not easy to see how to replace it”. He goes on to give his opinion, while “Expectation of life 73 for smoker & 74 for non-smoker”, the “revenue interest outweighs this”, and the risk is “Negligible compared with risk of crossing a street”.

The cabinet resolves to sit on the issue until further information emerges, words like “more time to consider”, and “may show this statement as not sufficiently grave”, and meanwhile “quote medical views, not Govt. views”, pepper the rest of the minutes.

A year after this meeting, the British Medical Council announced there was a “direct causal connection” between smoking and lung cancer.

“CAB 195/14, Cabinet Minutes, C.M.(55)20th Meeting – C.M.(56)36th Meeting.”
The National Archives in Kew, West London.

Click here to read the transcript of these Cabinet Papers.

Source: National Archives, Associated Press.

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD