Cigarettes containing asbestos are once more finding their way into the British Isles, according to Trading Standards investigators. In summer 2014, a three day undercover operation found the availability of a black market cigarette brand known to contain asbestos was widespread across the city of Belfast, Ireland.

During the early 1950s, one global brand, Kent, was known to have sold around 13 billion cigarettes with 10mgs of the deadly blue ‘crocidolite’ asbestos in each filter. Studies suggest that an average of 131 million fibres may have been inhaled each year during the same period. The use of asbestos in the production of cigarette papers and filters could be found in areas, such as Tyneside in the north of England during the 1970s.

Decades of medical research and legislation had still not brought asbestos awareness and protection to thousands of workers at risk of daily exposure in the workplace. Eventually, the most lethal forms of asbestos were first banned in the UK in 1985 followed by white asbestos in 1999. Ever since that time, as many as 300 different types of products known to contain the deadly fibres, such as toasters, hair dryers and oven gloves have been identified and should no longer pose a risk because the fibres were removed from production.

Six in every ten cigarette packets could be illegal

However, the highly profitable black market for cheap counterfeit cigarettes and tobacco has continued to bring the risk of asbestosis and mesothelioma caused by exposure to asbestos through smoking, back to Britain. A significant percentage of illegal and fake brand cigarettes are known to originate from China, which has one of the world’s biggest asbestos industries and where labour and manufacturing costs are around ten times less than the most well-known global brands.

Previously, it had been estimated that six in every ten cigarette packets could be illegal. Results from the summer 2014 investigation in Belfast found that of 95 products purchased across the city, 90 were packs of illegal cigarettes and five 50g pouches of roll-your-own tobacco. Outlets found to be selling both fake and black market versions of well known brands were mostly shops, public houses and mini cab offices right across the entire city.

However, both the scale and size of the problem may not simply be limited to Belfast. A separate study also conducted in 2014 analysed discarded cigarette packets in mainland Britain. While it was found that just over 26 per cent of cigarette packs in Belfast had not paid UK duty, in the UK the figure was not far behind at just over 24 per cent – or nearly a quarter of all packs examined.

Cigarette smoking and asbestos exposure

The considerable fatal health risks of cigarette smoking has also had a long association with the many thousands of workers who were occupationally exposed to asbestos. Yet smoking within ‘enclosed spaces’, such as inside pubs, bars, restaurants and other public buildings was only banned in Britain in July 2007.

But decades earlier, in the industrial workplaces where asbestos fibres were being used in producing insulation materials, it had become increasingly evident to doctors that both cigarette smoking and asbestos exposure can have a significant effect upon the risk of contracting lung cancer.

In 2011, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) published a report, revealing that of those employees who smoked and worked with asbestos, an estimated 3 per cent of lung cancer deaths were caused by asbestos exposure, 66 per cent to smoking only, and 28 per cent to both asbestos exposure and smoking. Of the 1,878 lung cancer deaths among 98,912 UK workers who were exposed to asbestos, just 2 per cent of lung cancer deaths occurred to those individuals who had never smoked.