Puffing away on his briar, Harold Macmillan appeared every inch the avuncular, dependable politician of the age. Indeed, from Winston Churchill to Harold Wilson, smoking, whether it be cigar or pipe (though rarely cigarette) was seen as an invaluable prop for leading political figures emerging into the television era.
So when, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, “Supermac” was asked by senior colleagues whether it was time the British public should be the target of a hard-hitting campaign warning about the iniquities of nicotine, it was perhaps inevitable he was willing to downplay the threat.
According to formerly classified government records released today by the National Archives, in 1956 Macmillan dismissed the health risks posed by smoking as “negligible, compared with the risk of crossing a street”.
The enthusiastic pipe, cigar and cigarette smoker, it seems, was unconvinced over the scientific data emerging from the pioneering work of the epidemiologist Richard Doll, which had already established a firm link between smoking and cancer. [It emerged after his death that Prof. Doll was also paid $1500 per day for more than 20 years by Monsanto – and he denounced any links between Agent Orange and cancer – Ed.]
The view from No 11 Downing Street was quite clearly that the tax revenues generated by tobacco easily outweighed the possible danger to public health.