Were there really asbestos in cigarettes?

Asbestos in a cigarette filter? It's sounds as ludicrous as a dioxin sandwich, but between 1952 and 1956, R Lorillard Company actually produced some 12 billion Kent cigarettes with asbestos in the filters. The nation's fourth largest tobacco company was so proud of its "Micronite" filter that it took out full page ads in the Journal of the American Medical Association to tout the filter's ability to remove tars and nicotine.

The filter seemed like a great idea at the time. The asbestos used by Lorillard could be spun into extremely fine fibers, so free that they trapped hazardous smoke particles smaller than a micron. In the fifties, as the medical community reported more and more about the hazards of smoking, tobacco companies rushed to put filters on cigarettes to show that they were doing something about the problem. Despite the sensational claims of its advertising, Lorillard's Micronite filter only made the problem worse: Tiny, shard-like asbestos fibers broke loose from the filter and were sucked into Kent smokers' lungs carrying particles of tars and nicotine.

Electron microscope tests ordered by Lorillard in 1954 confirmed that Kent smokers were being exposed to asbestos. But Kent was a hot seller, so 18 months passed and 4 billion more Kents were produced before the company finally removed the asbestos. Lorillard, however, never bothered to tell anyone the truth about the Micronire filters, even though it knew that asbestos exposure was linked to various lung diseases.

It's now known that even one exposure to asbestos increases a person's chance of developing mesothelioma, a rare and deadly cancer of the lung and abdomen caused almost exclusively by asbestos. People who smoke and are also exposed to asbestos compound their risk of developing mesothelioma many times over.

Lorillard, based in Greensboro, North Carolina, has never lost a lawsuit to a smoker who's alleged that his or her smoking led to tobacco-related lung cancer. But the Micronire filter changes the game: Future lawsuits will be about asbestos, not tobacco. Over the past 10 years, thousands of plaintiffs with work-related asbestos exposure cases have rung up a string of court victories and put the asbestos industry out of business.

Only one Micronite filter case against Lorillard has come to court thus far. Peter Ierardi, a 58-year-old Philadelphia stockbroker has only one explanation for the mesothelioma that will soon kill him: the Kents he smoked in the early fifties. Jurors in his case, however, found that Ierardi didn't prove conclusively that he smoked Kents then. Thus the jury ducked the scientific issues involved and acquitted Lorillard as well as Hollingsworth & Vose, the Massachusetts company that manufactured the Micronite filter. Lorillard still maintains that its Micronite filter is not responsible for causing mesothelioma in anyone.

Seven similar cases await trial, some more solid than others. The Greensboro News & Record reported in November that at least three former Lorillard employees have died of mesothelioma since 1989. About the only thing all three had in common was their work with the Micronite filter. Stella Manzo used to attach the filter to Kents in Lorillard's old Jersey City plant. She never smoked, but she died of mesothelioma in 1989 never knowing the filter contained asbestos.

But the two other diseased Lorillard workers knew and both won confidential out-of-court settlements prior to their deaths. Lorillard refused to comment about the settlements. The company made the workers' lawyers promise not to discuss the settlements either.