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The maker of Kents withheld information about its deadly asbestos filter.

Wall Street knows CBS owner Laurence Tisch as a man who makes few mistakes, but he may have made the mother of all errors when he bought Lorillard, the nation's fourth-largest tobacco company and maker of Kent cigarettes, in 1968. Tisch may have purchased a gigantic time- bomb, set to go off right about now: in the early 1950s, Kent filters were made with crocidolite, the most lethal form of asbestos known, and now the long latency period is expiring.

In the mid-1980s, Dr. James Talcott and his colleagues at the Dana- Farber Cancer Institute in Boston had three patients dying from asbestos-related diseases, including mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer caused primarily by crocidolite. Talcott and his team found that in 1953 all three had worked for a subsidiary of Holling-sworth & Vose, a Massachusetts company specializing in filtration materials. They obtained a list of the thirty-three men who had worked at the subsidiary that year. Based on their ages and actuarial data, 8.3 of the workers were expected to have died. Instead, a staggering twenty- eight were dead--85 percent of the workforce--most of them from various cancers, including asbestosis and mesothelioma. They had been employed by H&V for an average of only 1.7 years; one had worked part-time for just nine months.

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The substance the workers were bundling was crocidolite, a type of asbestos that is mined in South Africa and banned by every industrialized country in the world except the U.S. They were engaged in the manufacture of a single product: the famous "micronite filter" for Kent cigarettes, approximately 30 percent of which was composed of crocidolite asbestos.

Although the evidence suggests that H&V had no idea that its workers were literally bathing in deadly poison, Lorillard may have had far more than a hazy notion of what it was doing to its customers. As far back as World War I, some insurance companies had stopped covering asbestos workers because of the high risk. Additionally, an extensive literature had long existed on the subject as a result of studies involving gas masks, which used crocidolite as a filter. Nevertheless, Lorillard was so convinced of the efficacy of its new filter that it bought artfully-phrased advertisements suggesting that it had won the endorsement of the American Medical Association, a claim that produced a blistering editorial in the AMA's journal.

The Kent filter was introduced amidst much hoopla in 1952, but it was not until 1954 that Lorillard tried to discover whether its customers were breathing crocidolite as well as smoke. It commissioned two separate studies using electron microscopes to prove that no harmful fibers were entering smokers' lungs. Both studies showed the opposite. Subsequent tests revealed that the first two puffs through the micronite filter released 3.4 million crocidolite structures--that is, clumps of fibers. A smoker who consumed one pack of Kents a day for a year would inhale 1.242 billion such structures.

Lorillard did not utter a whisper about the findings except to disavow them in its internal corres-pondence. Instead, it embarked on a crash program to develop an entirely new filter--while leaving the old one on the shelves and advertising the blazes out of it. In 1957, a new filter was introduced containing no asbestos. And there the matter has rested over the decades.

Or has it? For an unspecified time now, Hollingsworth & Vose has been quietly awarding settlements to its dying workers or their estates, on condition that the recipients keep silent. Lorillard itself remained untouched until 1990, when fifty-eight-year-old Philadelphia stockbroker Peter Ierardi brought suit. Dying of mesothelioma, he claimed that his only contact with crocidolite came during the early 1950s when he smoked Kents. The jury eventually dismissed the suit when it ruled that Ierardi couldn't actually prove that he had smoked Kents during the period in question.

Although Ierardi has abandoned his quest, seven other asbestos cases have been brought against Lorillard. At least one other case has been brought in Kentucky, where lawyers are also busy filing claims on behalf of diseased former distillery workers who handled loose asbestos as part of the filtration process for bourbon whiskey. Crocidolite was also used as a filtration agent in atomic power plants and, apparently, in hospital operating rooms. Stay tuned. This may be just the beginning.