Spotlight On: Sir Richard Peto

Issue 28, Winter/Spring 2016

Sir Richard Peto, FRS

Sir Richard Peto, FRS
Professor, Medical Statistics and Epidemiology
Co-director, Clinical Trial Service Unit and Epidemiological Studies Unit
University of Oxford, U.K.

The battle against tobacco has been a long one, but finally – in Western nations at least – smoking rates have begun to fall.

And most experts in cancer prevention would credit at least some of that achievement to the work of Sir Richard Peto.

Knighted in 1999 by Queen Elizabeth for his service to the field of epidemiology, Peto helped revolutionize that discipline by introducing ‘meta-analyses’ – studies that pool information from related trials to come up with powerful datasets that guide research.

From their base at Oxford’s Clinical Trial Service Unit, Peto and Sir Richard Doll collaborated for more than 30 years to highlight links between smoking and many health issues, especially cancer.

Using data sources from around the globe, their groundbreaking work helped confirm the importance of tobacco as a key carcinogen.

Most importantly, Peto and Doll were able to communicate their findings to the public in a lucid, persuasive way – helping to turn the tide against the most important cancer risk factor.

For example, their research helped delineate the benefits of quitting smoking at particular ages – hard facts that smokers could use to make the tough decision to quit.

Governments around the world, and the World Health Organization, also used data from the Oxford team to help inform their anti-smoking policies and targets.

In one landmark study, Peto worked with Alan Lopez of the World Health Organization to calculate deaths from smoking in the 20th Century – and beyond. In a 2014 interview with Cancer Control, Peto summarized the grim statistics.

“In the last century, there were about 100 million deaths from smoking,” he said. “If current smoking patterns persist – with 30 percent of young adults becoming smokers and most not stopping – in the second half of the [21st] century we are going to end up finishing up with more than 100 million tobacco deaths per decade. That’s something like a billion deaths this century if we keep on as we are.”

However, sounding the alarm in this way – always based on rigorous science – Peto has helped reduce the likelihood that smokers will “keep on” as they are.

Smoking rates are already falling dramatically in the West, and Peto continues to advocate for legislative interventions such as higher taxes on tobacco products or plain cigarette packaging.

Peto was born in 1943 and studied natural sciences at Cambridge. In 1989 he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of London for his pioneering work in epidemiology. Peto’s work extends beyond cancer prevention, and he has collaborated recently on studies on alcohol use in Russia and malaria in Africa and India.

However, Peto’s efforts in the cancer prevention arena are far from over. He points to countries such as China and India, where the death toll from smoking remains enormous.

Speaking to the BBC in 2011, Peto said “there are a million deaths from smoking in China [annually] and things are getting worse rather than better. There are another million in India.”

Still, a world without smoking remains a real possibility, Peto believes.

“If they stop we’ll all be out of work,” he said, “It’ll be lovely.”