Smoking tobacco has been around practically forever, but cigarettes as a commercial product are actually a fairly recent invention. Before the Crimean War most Europeans smoked pipes or cigars. During the war, however, English soldiers picked up the habit of rolling their tobacco in newsprint from their Turkish allies. Being small, easy to light, and easy to carry around with you, the advent of the pre-made cigarette shortly thereafter allowed for an explosion in the amount of tobacco the average person could smoke.
Not surprisingly, when people started to take notice of the negative health effects of smoking, the tobacco industry responded by trying to produce safer cigarettes – or at the least cigarettes they could convince people were safer. Mentholated cigarettes were brought out around this time, the thought being that menthol vapors were good for the lungs.
The other major “safer” cigarette that was brought out was the filtered cigarette. Unfortunately for the smokers who used them, though, one of the first efforts at a filtered cigarette has to be considered a miss. The P. Lorillard Co., in making its first filters, decided to go with something readily available that they already knew made an efficient filter – asbestos.
Asbestos must have seemed the perfect solution at the time. It could be spun into tiny fibers, making a highly effective filter capable of trapping smoke particles down to 1 micron. It was readily available and not too expensive to use, at least in a premium brand. Lorillard launched the Kent cigarette in 1952 with a Micronite filter. It was advertised as “The greatest health protection in cigarette history.” “What is ‘Micronite’?” went another ad. “It’s a pure, dust-free, completely harmless material that is so safe, so effective, it actually is used to help filter the air in hospital operating rooms.”
Unfortunately both for Lorillard and their customers, the reality was a little different. The Micronite filters were 30% crocidolite, otherwise known as Brazilian blue asbestos, considered to be one of the most dangerous forms of asbestos. Implicated in both asbestosis and in mesothelioma, a particularly virulent form of lung cancer, asbestos is not exactly considered a health benefit for the lungs. Even worse, the filter made the cigarette hard to draw, resulting in the smoker using heavy suction, and drawing the smoke and filter particles deeply into the lungs.
Regardless of its actual safety, the brand was a hit. Concern about the health hazards of smoking made smokers interested in filtered cigarettes, and Kent became very popular, with over 13 billion cigarettes sold before 1957 when they changed the filter composition. Why they did is unknown, as the P. Lorillard Co. has never said. Lorillard memos of the time simply state that the filter had been “brilliantly improved”. One hopes the new filters provided somewhat better results than “The greatest health protection in cigarette history.”