Years Produced: 1952 – 1956
Asbestos cigarette filters were produced by Hollinsworth & Vose Company, also called H&V Specialties, for Lorillard Tobacco Company, which used them in their Kent Micronite cigarette brand. The filters contained asbestos to provide heat resistance. That, plus the fine grain of asbestos fibers, produced an effective filter for such a small product.
Boris Aivaz patented his cigarette filter in the United States in 1936, using a design that consisted of a crepe paper sheet sandwiched between absorptive materials like cellulose. The filter’s popularity surged during the 1950s when the harmful effects of smoking were becoming more publicized as consumers looked for ways to limit the damage from inhaling tobacco smoke. Likewise, tobacco companies, fearing a loss of customers, began looking for ways to market their products as safer. They, too, turned to the cigarette filter.
Philip Morris, British American Tobacco, Lorillard and other tobacco companies started pouring vast amounts of money into filter research and development to make a “safe cigarette.” They hired companies like Dow, DuPont and Eastman Kodak to research chemicals and synthetic fibers.
In their quest for the perfect fiber to use for filters, Hollingsworth & Vose (H&V) produced one made with crocidolite asbestos and tightly packed crepe paper in 1952. H&V produced the filters for Lorillard, and they were used in the Kent Micronite brand of cigarettes. The new filter was marketed as “the greatest health protection in cigarette history.” The company never revealed to the public that asbestos was the primary ingredient in its “dustless” cigarette.
From 1952 to 1956, Lorillard sold nearly 11.7 billion Kent Micronite cigarettes in the United States, all constructed with asbestos filters. The filter was considered effective because it filtered 30 percent of the tar from the smoke. Ultimately, though, the filter was judged to be too effective: smokers complained of a lack of flavor, and Kent only accounted for 1 percent of all cigarettes sold. The asbestos filter was abandoned, and Lorillard ceased production in 1956. The Kent Micronite brand is still sold today without asbestos.
Many people who smoked the original Kent Micronite cigarettes experienced health complications in later life as a result of asbestos exposure. One study revealed that smoking one pack of original Kent Micronite a day would expose a smoker to 131 million crocidolite fibers with a length of 5µm (5 micrometers or five thousandth a milimetre) a year. Studies suggest that fibers at this length or longer are the most carcinogenic. Each filter contained 10mg of asbestos, or as much as 30 percent. Because the study only analyzed the amount of asbestos inhaled from two puffs, the actual amount of asbestos inhaled by the average smoker would be far greater.
In addition to consumers, workers in factories producing the filters were also placed at risk, and many of them developed asbestosis, lung cancer or mesothelioma. A survey of 36 people who worked in the Hollingsworth & Vose filter factory in 1953 found that 20 had died from asbestos-related diseases. Seven employees who were still alive all had asbestosis. Researchers determined that even short exposure (a few months) to high quantities of crocidolite asbestos can lead to major health complications and even death. The factories were often dusty and dry, with workers often having to cut open and handle large burlap bags full of crocidolite asbestos fibers.
Because of the use of asbestos in its filters, Lorillard has paid millions in compensation to victims suffering from several asbestos-related diseases. While Hollingsworth & Vose was also named as a defendant, Lorillard signed a 1952 agreement that indemnifies H&V from liability arising from “harmful effects” of the filter. In the 1980s and ’90s, a wave of mesothelioma lawsuits was filed against Lorillard by individuals who had smoked the cigarettes in the 1950s. Former employees of Hollingsworth & Vose were also developing asbestos-related diseases and filling suit against their former employers.
One lawsuit was filed by Donat Lenney who smoked Kent cigarettes from 1952 to 1956. Lenney developed asbestos-related lung cancer and a jury awarded him $1.4 million. In Horowitz v. Raybestos-Manhattan, Inc., et al. a jury awarded $2 million to Milton Horowitz who developed mesothelioma after smoking Kent cigarettes.
In September 2013, a Florida jury awarded $8 million in an asbestos exposure case filed against Lorillard, Hollingsworth & Vose, and other defendants. Richard Delisle, a 74-year-old former pipe fitter at Crane Co., was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2012. He alleged that he was exposed to asbestos in the early 1960s from gaskets used at the paper mill. He also alleged that he was exposed to asbestos while smoking Kent cigarettes as a teenager.
However, Lorillard’s attorneys argued that, according to tests, smoking only releases a negligible amount of asbestos fibers. Based on that evidence, they argued that Crane and other defendants responsible for Delisle’s occupational asbestos exposure were responsible for his injuries.
But the jury disagreed and attributed 22 percent of the liability to Lorillard. It also attributed another 22 percent to Hollingsworth & Vose. The verdict is believed to be the largest asbestos-related award against cigarette manufacturers.
The only known brand of asbestos filter cigarettes is Kent Micronite sold from 1952-1956.
Fast Fact: Modern cigarette machines make 15,000 or more filter cigarettes per minute or 250 cigarettes in one second.
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