Even deadlier cigarettes

In the 1950s cigarette companies tried to make their products appear healthier. One of them decided to do this by adding asbestos.

Kent cigarettes
Rute Martins of Leoa’s Photography (www.leoa.co.za) [CC BY-SA]
The other day I was reading about the so-called “tar derby.” It was a specific period in the 1950s and early 1960s between two big events: the public revelations that cigarettes would kill you and the ban on health claims in cigarette ads. If you were in advertising, it was a golden age.

1950 was the year, and prominent medical journals began to connect the levels of tar and nicotine in cigarettes with lung cancer. Cigarette sales dropped suddenly, and the companies had to scramble to protect their revenues. And they responded the way that many companies do: by making it worse. So much worse.

The focus of advertising around this time was on the levels of tar and nicotine going into smokers’ lungs. In 1952 the Lorillard Tobacco Company introduced a filter that they claimed blocked much of the tar and nicotine – at the time, most cigarettes were unfiltered, so this was pitched as a health revolution. I’m not even joking, they boasted about the low low tar and nicotine and in four years sold 13 billion of their new Kent cigarettes.

Just one problem, and it was a doozy: their revolutionary filter contained asbestos. And not just any asbestos, blue asbestos, the deadliest kind. It will get into your lungs, stick around for decades, and then you’ll drop dead from mesothelioma. The asbestos was removed from the cigarettes in 1956, but that was long enough to do significant damage: Lorillard (now owned by R. J. Reynolds) has been beset by lawsuit upon lawsuit because of the double-dose of cigarette smoke and asbestos fibres.

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