Synopsis of Doll’s Case-Control Study and Hill’s Cohort Study

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Synopsis of Doll’s Case-Control Study and Hill’s Cohort Study
The relationship between smoking and lung cancer was suspected in the 1920’s. There were numerous studies done between 1930 and 1960 to gather scientific evidence on the relationship between the two. Two of the classic studies done during this time were a Case-Control study by Sir Richard Doll, and a Cohort study by A.B. Hill. A synopsis of each of these studies is included below.
Doll’s Case-Control Study
Data was collected from hospitalized patients from more than 20 hospitals in London over a four year period (April 1948 and February 1952). Investigators asked hospital personnel to contact them whenever a patient was admitted to the hospital with a new diagnosis of lung cancer (cases). Investigators also selected a random sample of patients from the same hospitals, but with different illnesses (controls). Cases and controls were interviewed about their smoking habits.
In the end, 1465 case-patients were interviewed for the study all under the age of 75, 1357 men and 108 women. Because of the disproportionate ratio of men to women (25 to 2), only men were included in the final study. An equal number of controls (1357) were interviewed about their smoking history. Investigators divided smoking history into groups based on the average number of cigarettes smoked per day. The study findings were as follows:

smoked daily



Odds Ratios

















All Smokers








The Odds Ratios show that cases had greater odds of having smoked than controls (All Smokers). Furthermore, as you move up the groups, from no cigarettes per day to 25+ cigarettes per day, the values of the odds ratio rise steadily, consistent with a dose-response relationship between the daily number of cigarettes smoked and the strength of the association.

At the time of the study, the great majority of people with lung cancer required hospitalization. The cases in this study were therefore representative of the total population of lung cancer patients during the time the study was conducted. While controls in the study, (other people admitted to the hospital), may have been matched to cases, there are still questions whether or not controls accurately the rest of the population (i.e., people who are not admitted to hospitals). Because a Case-Control study can only look at one disease, if cigarette smoking were causing other health problems that required hospitalization, controls selected from the hospital may have had a higher incidence of smoking than the general population.
While Odds Ratios can show an association, they cannot prove causation.
Hill’s Cohort Study
A questionnaire was sent out to physicians who resided in Wales and England, as listed in the British Medical Register in 1951. The questionnaire inquired about physicians past and present smoking habits. Respondents were categorized based on their exposure to cigarette smoke. Investigators gathered and analyzed information on participants over the ensuing years from death certificates and other mortality data to see if those exposed to cigarette smoke had a higher incidence (and death rate) of lung cancer.
A total of 59,600 questionnaires were sent out to physicians. Of the questionnaires received, 40,637 (68%) were received, 34,445 from men and 6,192 from women. The results for men over the age of 35 are included below.

smoked daily

Deaths from Lung Cancer

Mortality rate per 1000 person years*

Relative Risks

















All Smokers








*Mortality rate is conceptually similar to Risk of Disease, though the person must die and time is taken into consideration in this study.
The findings from Hill’s Cohort Study found that smoking increases the risk of developing lung cancer and the more you smoke the higher your risk becomes. Hill’s findings reinforce the findings of Doll’s Case-Control study. While neither study can prove causation, Hill’s Cohort Study is a step closer than Doll’s. Hill’s study found that if everyone who smoked had never smoked, 96% of Lung Cancer cases among smokers would be avoided, which is equivalent to 1.23 deaths attributable to smoking per 1000 smokers each year.
Unlike a case-control study, a cohort study can look at multiple outcomes (diseases). Hill did just that and found that exposure to smoking increased risk for cardiovascular disease. In their Cohort Study, if everyone who smoked had never smoked, about 23% of deaths from cardiovascular disease among smokers would have been avoided. Although the percentage risk from smoking was lower for cardiovascular disease than for lung cancer, more total deaths from cardiovascular disease could be attributed to smoking than for lung cancer. In Hill’s study, 2.19 deaths per 1000 smokers each year was attributable to smoking.
The reason that there are more total deaths due to cardiovascular disease that can be attributed to smoking than deaths due to lung cancer that can be attributed to smoking is that cardiovascular disease is much more prevalent than lung cancer. In Hill’s study the rate of cardiovascular disease among non-smokers was about 100 times the rate of lung cancer among non-smokers.
The Cohort in Hill’s study was physicians, who may or may not be representative of the general population. Although a number of physicians in the study smoked cigarettes, physicians’ knowledge of disease in general, their access to medical care, or other lifestyle differences compared to the general population may make the findings different than they would be if a different population was used for the cohort.

Comparison of Doll’s and Hill’s Studies

Doll’s Case-Control Study

Hill’s Cohort Study

  • Gathered data on people admitted to a hospital over a four year period

  • Matched controls to cases (matching is sometimes used in case-control studies)

  • Potential for controls to be mismatched to cases, or for controls to not be representative of the general population

  • Gathered data on less than 3,000 people

  • Groups based on diagnosis: cases had lung cancer (outcome), controls did not

  • Gathered data on smoking history (exposure) to find the incidence of smoking

  • Started with one outcome (lung cancer)

  • Looked at a rare outcome (lung cancer)

  • Could have investigated multiple exposures (though smoking exposure was the focus of the study)

  • Calculated Odds Ratios

  • Cannot determine the risk of getting a disease based on exposure

  • Gathered data from physicians listed in the British Medical Register as of 1951, and “followed” them for ten years

  • No matching involved (matching is generally not used in cohort studies)

  • Potential that the people included in the cohort are not representative of the general population

  • Gathered data on more than 40,000 people

  • Groups based on smoking history (exposure)

  • Gathered data on the cause of death (outcome) in each group (for those who died) to find the incidence of lung cancer, and cardiovascular disease

  • Started with one exposure (smoking)

  • Looked at a frequent exposure (smoking)

  • Looked at multiple outcomes (lung cancer deaths, cardiac disease)

  • Calculated Rate Ratios (aka Relative Risk)

  • Can measure the risk of getting a disease based on exposure

This resource was adapted from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Case-studies in applied epidemiology “Cigarette Smoking and Lung Cancer.”

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