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another sum exlusive

Issue 8 - Christmas 2001

Smoke Signals

Smoke Signals A statistics man from an Oxford institute, Richard Peto, is using numbers in the fight against nicotine.

In the 1980s his research institute did a trial showing that "if people who have had a heart attack are given half an aspirin a day, then about a quarter of the deaths in hospital are avoided". As a direct result of this trial, several tens of thousands of deaths a year are being prevented through this treatment.

Now Peto is using shocking statistics to show the ashen truth about tobacco. This global killer takes around 4 million people a year, and the numbers are rising. Whether you chew it or smoke it, it kills just as many people in developing countries as it does in the developing world, but from different diseases - in China it's mainly lung cancer, in India it's TB, here it's heart-attacks. Smokers are typically three or four times as likely to die of the major killer diseases than non-smokers.

Why exactly this is remains a mystery, but, Peto explains, the numbers men are embarking on a mammoth project to smoke out the answers. They want to store millions of blood samples from all over the world. "The idea is then to sit back and wait for the donors to die". This fatal count-down sounds a bit gruesome. But after around 10 years the statisticians will be able to look at groups of people who die from certain diseases and see what they have in common.

Since the 1950s, tobacco smoking in Britain has halved, but this still leaves 10 million smokers, half of whom will die from a smoking related disease. The numbers of children taking up smoking hasn't gone up proportionally, so Peto thinks the government should focus on getting adults to kick the deadly habit:

"Many smokers wrongly believe there is little point in stopping because most of the damage must already have been done." Says Peto, but "We can see that even if you are 50 and have been smoking for 30 years, stopping more than halves your risk of dying from smoking. Stopping at 30 cuts the risk by 90 per cent.

When asked how he ended up being a statistician, Peto says it was by accident "but as soon as you start to get your own research results, you get hooked. I've been addicted ever since".

But seeing as statistically, smoking days are numbered, it's one habit not to start.

Source: New Scientist magazine

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Murphy's Millions

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Smoke Signals

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