Asbestos, cigarettes and asbestos-related cancer have long been a fatal trio, which can still leave a deadly wisp in the air for exposure victims.

In one recent case of confirmed mesothelioma, a middle aged woman was employed at a cigarette factory in north east England, where it is believed she inhaled the asbestos fibre dust. The exposure is said to have been caused when building contractors removed asbestos lagging from the building’s pipework system during six months of renovations in the late 1970s.

The former factory worker was aged just 57, when more than thirty five years later, doctors confirmed she was suffering from the incurable asbestosis cancer. The devastating news came as a complete shock to the victim. As is so often recounted in these cases, there was no absolutely no asbestos awareness at the time of the potential health dangers and certainly no safety information or protection provided by the company employers.

It is tragic twist to the more common cause of exposure to asbestos suffered by those who worked in cigarette factories. By the late 1950s, at least one well-known cigarette brand was producing over 13 billion cigarettes containing 10mgs of the extremely toxic blue asbestos blended with cotton, acetate and crepe paper in each filter.

Significant higher death rate

In 1989, the Journal of Medicine reported a study carried out on a group of 33 cigarette factory workers involved in manufacturing filters with blue asbestos. The results showed a statistically significant higher death rate from lung cancer and mesothelioma compared to a second group of twenty-eight men, who also worked in the filter making factory who had died mostly as a result of lung-related illnesses.

The blue asbestos fibre type is considered the most dangerous when inhaled. An estimated average of 131 million fibres may have been inhaled every year by those who smoked cigarettes with a blue asbestos filter. Finally, in 1985, both blue and brown asbestos were the first fibre types to be banned from use in the UK.

Cigarette smoking and exposure to asbestos have also been strongly linked together by doctors diagnosing the potential risk of developing incurable mesothelioma cancer of the lung linings. It shouldn’t be forgotten that attitudes to smoking were very different during much of the twentieth century. Although the significant health dangers were still being researched by clinicians, the increasing medical evidence against tobacco smoking was often vigorously disputed.

History of smoking

Today, a doctor will always ask if a mesothelioma victim has a history of smoking as the overwhelming impact on individuals also exposed to asbestos is now better understood.

According to recent research, 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 the result of smoking only and 28 per cent attributed to both asbestos exposure and smoking. Just 2 per cent of lung cancer deaths in UK workers exposed to asbestos occurred to those individuals who had never smoked (Health and Safety Executive, 2011).

Unfortunately, the deadly dangers from asbestos and cigarettes in the twentieth century continue to hang in the air of the twenty first. An estimated six in every ten illegally imported, fake brand cigarette packets – up from the previous two in six – have been found to contain asbestos materials. The consignments are known to originate from China, the world’s second biggest asbestos exporter after Russia, and where labour and manufacturing costs are around ten times less than the most well-known global brands.

Illegal cigarette imports

In 2014, an investigation in Belfast, Ireland found that of 95 products purchased across the city, 90 were packs of illegal cigarettes. Outlets found to be selling both fake and black market versions of well known brands across the entire city were mostly shops, public houses and mini cab offices. In many cases, the fake goods are often almost indistinguishable from genuine brands.

Worryingly, both the scale and size of illegal cigarette imports may not be confined to Ireland. A separate study of discarded cigarette packets in mainland Britain found that nearly a quarter of all packs examined (24 per cent) had not paid UK duty compared to just over 26 per cent in Belfast.

HM Revenue & Customs estimate that 10 per cent of cigarettes, and 39 per cent of hand rolled tobacco consumed in the UK in 2013/14, was illegal. The figures suggest that there could be a disturbingly high number of packets of illegally imported cigarettes, which may also contain asbestos fibre filters and a real future health risk to countless smokers of fake brands.