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Public Health

Volume 498: debated on Thursday 27 March 1952

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Cigarettes (Arsenic Content)


asked the Minister of Health if he is aware that the arsenic content of English cigarettes has been found to range twice as high as that of American cigarettes and 25 times as high as that of Turkish and Rhodesian cigarettes; and whether, in view of the fact that there are grounds for the belief that this arsenic content may be the cause of the increasing incidence of cancer of the lung, he will take steps to regulate the entry into the country of tobacco having an unnecessarily high arsenic content.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health
(Miss Patricia Hornsby-Smith)

My right hon. Friend is aware that a small-scale study showed these proportions, but I understand the amounts were very small and varied widely in the same types of cigarettes. Also my right hon. Friend is advised that arsenic in tobacco smoke is not established as a likely cause of cancer of the lung, and that the great bulk of the tobacco used in British cigarettes comes from the countries mentioned in the Question.

Is my hon. Friend aware that arsenic is regarded by those who have studied this subject as being contributory to cancer, and that this content of arsenic in American tobacco arises from the use of arsenic sprays in that country unnecessarily? In refusing to take the action for which I have asked, does she realise that she and the Minister are hazarding the lives of the citizens of this country?

Taking the best evidence available to the Department, I can assure my hon. Friend that international lung cancer statistics give no indication that arsenic in cigarettes causes cancer, although one Turkish hospital has reported a high incidence of lung cancer.

Is it not true that the Medical Research Council is considering this matter?

Will the hon. Lady represent to the Chancellor of the Exchequer that the increased use of Rhodesian and Greek tobacco would make a major contribution to curing the economic cancer of our dollar deficiency in our balance of payments?



asked the Minister of Health the proportion of the total deaths in the United Kingdom which arose from cancer in 1931 and 1951 respectively.

In 1950, the latest year for which figures are available, the proportion of total deaths in England and Wales, which arose from cancer including various analogous conditions was 16.71 per cent. The comparable figure for 1931 was 11.96 per cent. As regards Scotland, I would refer my hon. Friend to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.


asked the Minister of Health if he has given consideration to the desirability of education in the cancer field; and what conclusions he has reached.

Yes, Sir. The Central Health Services Council have advised my right hon. Friend that it is undesirable at the present time for any cancer publicity to be carried out by any central Government organisation direct to the general public. My right hon. Friend's Cancer and Radiotherapy Standing Advisory Committee are considering the merits of local schemes of cancer education.

Does my hon. Friend not think that it is about time that the secrecy with which cancer has been surrounded for the past 30 years was brought to an end and some attempt made to educate the public and enable them to take certain safeguards that are practicable in this case?

Will the hon. Lady bear in mind that the type of advice which she has been given and which she has described is, in the minds of many other people, and, I think, in the minds of the public at large, wrong, and that the public have the right to know what dangers they face, whether they be from cigarettes or whether they be from arsenic in tobacco? The more we know about them the better for us all.

Can the hon. Lady indicate to the House how much of the increase in deaths attributable to cancer, to which she has referred, is due to the improvement in the method of diagnosis?

In answer to the last question, certainly I would agree with the hon. Gentleman that considerable steps in improvement have been taken in diagnosis in the early stages of the incidence of cancer, and that has substantially contributed to the increased figures. So far as the other points raised are concerned, taking the best medical advice at our disposal we do not think it is advisable to increase public alarm, but we are using all endeavours, by the education of general practitioners in early diagnosis, to encourage all possible methods of ascertaining the incidence of this disease.