It’s hard to think of anything more reckless than adding a deadly carcinogen to a product that already causes cancer—and then bragging about the health benefits.
Yet that’s precisely what Lorillard Tobacco did 60 years ago when it introduced Kent cigarettes, whose patented “Micronite” filter contained a particularly virulent form of asbestos.
Smokers puffed their way through 13 billion Kents between March 1952 and May 1956, when Lorillard changed the filter design.
Six decades later, the legal fallout continues a Florida jury has awarded more than $3.5 million in damages to a former Kent smoker stricken with mesothelioma, an extremely rare and deadly asbestos-related cancer that typically shows up decades after the initial exposures.
Lorillard and Hollingsworth & Vose, the company that supplied the asbestos filter material, face numerous claims from mesothelioma sufferers, both factory workers who produced the cigarettes or filter material and former smokers who say they inhaled the microscopic fibers. (The companies insist that hardly any fibres escaped.)
“Micronite” one ad boasted, is “a pure, dust-free, completely harmless material that is so safe, so effective, it actually is used to help filter the air in operating rooms.”
Kent was Lorillard’s response to the health scare of the early 1950s, when the link between smoking and lung cancer began drawing wide attention. Tobacco companies scurried to roll out filters to calm jittery smokers and keep them from quitting in droves.
The health benefits would prove illusory, but the switch to filters averted the potential loss of millions of customers. “The industry’s own researchers admitted that filters did nothing to make cigarettes safer,” notes Robert Proctor, a Stanford University historian whose 2012 book, Golden Holocaust, covers Big Tobacco’s tactics in painstaking detail.
“Philip Morris scientists in 1963 admitted that ‘the illusion of filtration’ was as important as ‘the fact of filtration.”