BackgroundSmokers attribute respiratory symptoms, even when severe, to everyday causes and not as indicative of ill-health warranting medical attention. The aim of this pilot study was to conduct a structured vignette survey of people attending general practice to determine when they would advise a person with respiratory symptoms to consult a medical practitioner. Particular reference was made to smoking status and lung cancer.MethodsParticipants were recruited from two general practices in Western Australia. Respondents were invited to complete self-administered questionnaires containing nine vignettes chosen at random from a pool of sixty four vignettes, based on six clinical variables. Twenty eight vignettes described cases with at least 5% risk of cancer. For analysis these were dubbed 'cancer vignettes'. Respondents were asked if they would advise a significant other to consult a doctor with their respiratory symptoms. Logistic regression and non-parametric tests were used to analyse the data.ResultsThree hundred questionnaires were distributed and one hundred and forty completed responses were collected over six weeks. The majority (70.3%) of respondents were female aged forty and older. A history of six weeks' of symptoms, weight loss, cough and breathlessness independently increased the odds of recommending a consultation with a medical practitioner by a factor of 11.8, 2.11, 1.40 and 4.77 respectively. A history of smoking independently increased the odds of the person being thought 'likely' or 'very likely' to have cancer by a factor of 2.46. However only 32% of cancer vignettes with a history of cigarette smoking were recognised as presentations of possible cancer.ConclusionEven though a history of cigarette smoking was more likely to lead to the suggestion that a symptomatic person may have cancer we did not confirm that smokers would be more likely to be advised to consult a doctor, even when presenting with common symptoms of lung cancer.