In the early 1950s, when the link between smoking and lung cancer began receiving attention, the Lorillard tobacco company mounted an unusual counterattack.
Lorillard held a news conference at New York's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel to launch Kent, a new brand whose "Micronite" filter, in the company's words, offered "the greatest health protection in cigarette history."
Lorillard knew that patients often asked their doctors about the risks of smoking. Accordingly, the company advertised Kent not only in popular media but in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the New England Journal of Medicine and other medical publications. The idea, an advertising executive later explained, was to have physicians "prescribe" Kent for patients who were unable or unwilling to quit.
More than 35 years later, Lorillard has been forced to admit that Kent's "Micronite" filter - which it had touted as "pure" and "dust-free" - contained, from 1952 to 1956, a particularly virulent form of asbestos.
The admission has surfaced in a series of lawsuits filed by asbestos disease victims, some of whom claim their only contact with asbestos was smoking Kents. The lawsuits include the explosive allegation that Lorillard was told by consultants in 1954 that Kent smokers were inhaling asbestos, but took two years to remove the deadly fiber from the filter.
Other highly publicized lawsuits against tobacco companies, including Lorillard, have involved claims of death or disease from inhalation of tobacco smoke. Cigarette makers for the most part have flicked away such suits by arguing that smokers were put on notice of the risks of smoking.
But these new cases are about asbestos, not tobacco smoke, and plaintiffs will claim they had no way of knowing there was asbestos in their Kent cigarettes.
The first of the cases scheduled for trial is that of Peter Ierardi, a 56-year old stockbroker who has mesothelioma, a rare and particularly lethal form of cancer whose only significant known cause is asbestos.
"Foremost in everyone's mind should be the fact that this is a very brief window in Lorillard's history that occurred 35 years ago," said Lorillard attorney Allen Purvis.
The use of asbestos in Kent drew wide attention after a Los Angeles Times article three years ago that revealed the high rate of asbestos-related deaths among workers at Hollingsworth & Vose Co., a Massachusetts company that made the filter material for Lorillard. Some of the workers' families collected large damage settlements from Hollingsworth & Vose.
In one instance, a woman named Elizabeth Jacobs lost her brother, a Hollingsworth & Vose worker, to asbestosis; then lost her husband, another company worker, to mesothelioma; and later died herself of mesothelioma - apparently from washing her husband's clothes.
Hollingsworth & Vose is Lorillard's co-defendant in the first lawsuit to go to court, that of Peter Ierardi, and four others filed by the Philadelphia law firm of Johnson & Childs. Dan Childs, a lawyer with the firm, said he expects to file five more cases soon.
Up to now, the tobacco industry's success in defeating damage claims has been blemished only twice - but neither outcome sparked a rush to the courthouse:
-- In 1988, survivors of lung-cancer victim Rose Cipollone won a $400,000 judgment in Newark, N.J. against the Liggett Group, but the award was overturned on appeal and a retrial is expected after a review of legal issues by the U.S. Supreme Court.
-- Last year, a Mississippi jury found American Tobacco Co. liable for the lung-cancer death of Nathan Horton, but jurors said Horton shared responsibility and did not award damages to his family.
A victory by Ierardi could trigger more claims against the industry, according to Richard Daynard, a Boston law professor who heads the Tobacco Products Liability Project, a group that promotes lawsuits against tobacco companies.
"Anything that eliminates the historically well-justified myth of invincibility of the tobacco industry . . . will encourage attorneys to consider the full range of exposure of the industry for the death and disease that their products cause," Daynard said.
Other experts believe the Ierardi case will have little effect on the broader class of smoker-death claims, of which about 50 are pending across the country. Because Ierardi's is an asbestos case - not a traditional tobacco case - its relevance to that other litigation is minor, they say.
At the same time, because the case is not like other smoking cases, Lorillard's lawyers probably won't be able to use the defense that has served them well in ordinary tobacco cases: They won't be able to say that Ierardi was warned about the asbestos in Kent filters and assumed the risk.
Also, Lorillard attorneys made seemingly contradictory statements on a critical point: whether asbestos was released into the smoke when customers puffed their Kents.
A Lorillard lawyer, quoted in a recent news report, said a company researcher in 1954 had detected "trace amounts" of asbestos in smoke from Kents.
Previously, a different Lorillard attorney had told the Wall Street Journal "that the asbestos didn't get out of the filter, so there is no basis for claiming that people were exposed to asbestos when they smoked the cigarette."