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As news that Russian former secret agent Alexander Litvinenko had been poisoned with polonium 210 swept round the world in November, many great minds in public health thought alike. Why not build on publicity about this dangerous element to tell smokers that polonium 210 is one of the many and various poisons they inhale with every puff of their cigarettes?
As it happened, Cancer Research UK, as part of a health promotion partnership with the British government, had just been working on a mass media campaign about tobacco featuring six chemicals that most smokers have heard of, and would rate as poisons, but may not know to be present in tobacco smoke. The idea of the radio and television advertisements, and small but high visibility posters, was to trigger a move towards giving up smoking, or at least help smokers to the first stage of the cessation loop. One of the poisons was polonium 210, with smokers being informed, for example, that a study had found that someone smoking one and half packs a day receives the equivalent amount of radiation as someone having 300 chest x rays a year. The other poisons featured in the series were arsenic, benzene, cadmium, formaldehyde and hydrogen cyanide.
Just as the advertisements were coming up for launch, the Department of Health decided to pull the one on polonium, at least temporarily, to spare the feelings of the murdered man’s family. Some health agencies criticised the move as a sign of weakness, while others supported it by warning that its immediate airing would have led to panic-stricken smokers jamming cessation telephone lines, an argument necessarily based on conjecture rather than on comparable experience elsewhere.
Whatever would have been the outcome, all sides seem to think that the polonium link should and probably will in some form be used later. If so, it remains to be seen whether smokers’ residual awareness of polonium 210 well after the peak of the Litvinenko story will be sufficient to result in a greater effect in leading them towards cessation than publicity about the other chemicals, and then only if it is properly evaluated. Whether the delay in airing the polonium film has wasted what could have been a significantly greater prompting effect while the story was hot will never be known.