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Cigarette smokers, it is clear, do not panic easily. They are an emancipated lot, whose moral callous began to harden about the time they first took up the civilized comforts and were warned that smoking stunts the growth. In recent years, it's been easy for confirmed smokers to ignore mounting evidence indicating that cigarettes and cancer are closely related.
Now, however, smokers who have laughingly offered their friends cancer sticks may discover just how sick the joke really is. A committee of nine doctors appointed by Britain's Royal College of Physicians has published a report on smoking and cancer which summarizes evidence collected in Britain by scientists and statisticians over the last decade; with no particular drum to beat and very little moralizing, the report makes some very scary points.
It concludes, for example, that there is strong evidence linking cancer with smoking. The chances of a non-smoker's dying of cancer before retirement age are about 1 in 6; the chances of a heavy smoker are about 1 in 3.
As the consumption of cigarettes in England has continued to rise, the report finds, so has the number of deaths from lung cancer. In 1944, about 7,000 people died of cancer of the lung; in 1961, about 20,000 people succumbed to the disease. Granting that there have been immense gains in techniques of cancer diagnosis in the years since '44, the statistic is still alarming.
The report also strikes out against the argument that air pollution, rather than cigarettes, causes cancer. It points to Iceland, which has always been smokefree and cancer-free until recent years: since World War 2, when cigarettes were introduced there, lung cancer has, as predicted, shown a sudden and alarming increase.
The report urges that the British government conduct a massive publicity campaign to discourage smoking, especially among children and adolescents. The committee suggests a much heavier tax on cigarettes, and restrictions on cigarette advertising as well. It remains to be seen whether the British government will act on the report and its proposals, which a separate Danish Medical Commission has also supported.
Those who like to take a kind of sardonic pleasure in witnessing the willful perversity of the human race will probably enjoy themselves in the United States during the next few years. It seems unlikely that the American Medical Association will take time off from its arduous lobbying duties to support a cause which, after all, will only save lives. No one expects television companies to devote expensive advertising space to public service pronouncements about smoking and cancer. A nation of health cranks and pill takers will probably go on smoking as before; and the cancer rate will also go on as before.
Unless, of course, the U.S. government is prepared to take the kind of action the British report urges; a federal publicity campaign to inform the public of the dangers of smoking. Failing that, the Food and Drug Administration could require cigarette manufacturers to stamp on each package: DANGER--INCREASES PROBABILITY OF LUNG CANCER.
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