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Smoking and lung cancer: half of British workforce worried by workplace smoking

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by Cancer Research UK | News

13 January 2003

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More than 12 million British workers are concerned about the risks of developing lung cancer due to passive smoking at work, estimates a MORI survey published today1.

The report, commissioned by Cancer Research UK, Marie Curie Cancer Care, QUIT, ASH and No Smoking Day as part of January’s Lung Cancer Awareness Month, reveals that over half of the country’s workforce is concerned about the effects of smoking in the workplace. Over a quarter are very concerned.

These figures are high despite a lack of knowledge about the deadliness of lung cancer. The survey reveals that 68 per cent of people overestimate the chances of survival while 20 per cent have no idea about survival chances. Only 12 per cent correctly estimate that just one in 20 diagnosed with the disease survive for five years.

Awareness among smokers of the survival rate does not improve significantly – 14 per cent correctly estimate survival chances, but 86 per cent overestimate or don’t know. Ex-smokers are the most likely to know about the low survival rate – 16 per cent do so, while 84 per cent overestimate or don’t know.

Professor Martin Jarvis, Assistant Director of the Cancer Research UK Health Behaviour Unit, says: “There are clearly major health concerns among the British workforce about smoking. Ideally smokers should be offered help to quit – an employer could offer advice about smoking clinics, details of helplines or even nicotine replacement therapy.

“The benefits of stopping smoking are huge – for smokers and for those that come into contact with smoke.”

The MORI results have spurred on the charities’ coalition to launch its Clear the Air campaign. Its main aim is to reduce workers’ exposure to passive smoking. This would also help the 70 per cent of smokers trying to quit (ONS, 2000), but who face a daily gauntlet of a smoking workplace.

Clear the Air launches with an online survey aimed at UK workers. The results will act as a barometer of smoking in the workplace and will be passed to the Government to highlight the urgent need for action.

In October 2000 the Health and Safety Commission – the government’s own advisors on health and safety – recommended immediate action to introduce an Approved Code of Practice (ACoP), which would lead to smoking being banned in the majority of workplaces. More than two years on, the Government has still not introduced the Code.

Patron of the Clear the Air campaign is Fiona Castle, widow of the entertainer Roy Castle. She says: “Roy lost a courageous battle with lung cancer in 1994. He was not a smoker, but a victim of many years of breathing other people’s smoke while playing his trumpet in clubs. I have vowed to do all I can to help stamp out lung cancer and protect people from second-hand smoke at work.”

Recent research carried out across Europe by a panel of experts estimates that non-smokers who are exposed to second-hand smoke are 20 to 30 per cent more likely to develop lung cancer.

Sir Richard Peto of Cancer Research UK and Professor of Medical Statistics and Epidemiology, University of Oxford, says: “The best way to help smokers quit is to give them facts. Half of all smokers are eventually killed by tobacco – it can cause cancer, lung disease and heart disease.”

He points out that among men who continue to smoke, 16 per cent will die from tobacco-induced lung cancer before age 75, if they don’t die of something else beforehand.

For those who stop at age 50 this risk is only six per cent, and those who stop at age 30 it is only one per cent.

“Even smokers who stop in middle age avoid most of their later risk of being killed by tobacco, and those who stop before middle age avoid nearly all risk,” says Sir Richard.

The message seems to have been picked up by the public. The MORI survey shows that 62 per cent believe there is no limit to the age when health benefits can be gained from stopping smoking.

Steve Crone, Chief Executive of QUIT says: “More employers need to think of the benefits of a smoke free workplace. The Clear the Air Campaign aims to give employers the incentive to get help. Whether you’re a small business or an international company, effective tailor-made packages can be produced to suit your working environment.”

Marsha Williams, ASH’s Workplace Specialist says: “Millions of people currently have their working lives blighted because of passive smoke exposure yet Government seems determined to continue with some sort of sick joke by failing to protect them. “Until Ministers introduce the ACoP far too many people are being left in the unenviable position of having to choose between their health and their income because irresponsible bosses are allowed to do nothing to restrict smoking.”

Dr Teresa Tate, Medical Adviser for Marie Curie Cancer Care, adds: “Many employees are suffering in silence while their health is placed at risk. If you work in a large corporate company with a clear no-smoking policy it is easy to forget that there are still many smaller firms where there is no such policy. There are still offices and factory floors where ash trays sit on desks and smoking is allowed in communal areas.”

Doreen McIntyre, Chief Executive of No Smoking Day, says: “Many people try to quit as a New Year’s resolution, and more will be trying to quit on No Smoking Day in March, but one of the main problems with staying quit is dealing with contact with smoke. You can avoid the pub for a while – but it’s impossible to do the same with work.”

TUC General Secretary Elect Brendan Barber adds: “The Health and Safety Commission’s draft ACoP on passive smoking would address the needs of smokers and non-smokers alike. All we are saying is that employers need to think sensibly about how to manage the risks of smoking in the workplace, and should take the needs and views of their workers into account. These figures show just how worried workers are, and how important it is to end the uncertainty and confusion, which benefits no one.”



  1. The MORI survey comprised a representative sample of 2,001 adults aged 16+ across Great Britain. Interviews were carried out face-to-face, in-home between 12 – 18 December 2002. Data have been weighted to the known national profile of Great Britain. The overall sample of 2,001 adults is accurate to within +/- 2 per cent (95 times in 100). A sample size of 1,052 working adults is accurate to within +/- 3 per cent ( 95 times in 100).