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Asbestos-related lung cancer

The synergistic effect of smoking and asbestos exposure

  • Smoking is the leading cause of lung cancer. After radon, asbestos is the next most common cause of lung cancer.
  • People who smoke tobacco have a 4-8 times greater chance of developing lung cancer than the general population.
  • People who worked with asbestos have a 4-5 times greater risk of developing lung cancer.
  • People who both smoke tobacco and were exposed to asbestos have a risk of developing lung cancer that is 90 times greater than a person who did neither.

The numbers are clear, and startling. There is no doubt that either smoking or exposure to asbestos greatly increase a person’s risk of developing lung cancer. When both of those factors are combined – when a person who was exposed to asbestos is also a smoker – the risk factor becomes astronomical. The two lung irritants work together to increase the risk of developing lung cancer not by a factor of one or two, but to 90 times the risk that a person without either of those conditions has. Scientists call this a synergistic effect.

The problem is, lung damage caused by the more than 50 known carcinogens (cancer-causing agents) in tobacco smoke, as well as the other chemicals, irritants and toxins in cigarette smoke, leave smokers more susceptible to other irritants, such as inhaled asbestos fibers. If you’ve been exposed to asbestos, this is all the more reason to stop smoking.

There is good news for smokers who were exposed to asbestos. Studies have shown that if you quit smoking, your lungs can begin to heal themselves. For each year that you remain smoke-free, your risk of developing lung cancer gets lower. Ten years after putting down your last cigarette, your risk of developing lung cancer will have dropped from 90 times greater than a person who has never smoked or been exposed to asbestos to 4-5 times greater – the same risk that a non-smoker exposed to asbestos has.

Legal considerations

Because of the strong association between smoking and lung cancer, pressing an asbestos lawsuit for a person who smokes can present a bit of a challenge for an asbestos lawyer. If you smoke or smoked, and have lung cancer rather than mesothelioma, a lawyer for the asbestos defendant will often try to argue that it was the tobacco that caused your lung cancer, not the exposure to asbestos.

The defense lawyer in an asbestos case may also try to argue that you contributed to your own condition by smoking, and therefore the defendant should not be held liable for your lung cancer, and should not have to pay any damages.

Interestingly, the asbestos companies have on more than one occasion joined forces with plaintiffs against them to sue tobacco companies for their part in contributing to lung cancer in people who were exposed to asbestos. According to one suit that was filed (and dismissed) in 2001, the tobacco companies knew and knowingly concealed the fact that the use of tobacco products greatly increased the risks of getting lung cancer in people who were also exposed to asbestos. In some cases, the defendants in asbestos lawsuits that involve plaintiffs who smoke have attempted to appeal on the grounds that the plaintiffs contributed to the development of lung cancer by smoking.

The tide on asbestos and tobacco-related lung cancer lawsuits seems to be turning as more is learned about the way that lung cancer develops, and as the courts begin to hold the tobacco companies responsible for the damages caused by cigarette smoking. In Australia, which has traditionally not allowed asbestos lawsuits when the plaintiff is a smoker, a judge awarded a settlement to the daughter of a man on the grounds that his lung cancer was caused not by cigarette smoking OR asbestos alone, but by the combination of both exposures working together. The August 2005 ruling opens the door for hundreds of other workers who have been denied compensation in asbestos lawsuits in Australia.

The position of the tobacco companies on being held partially financially responsible for damages in asbestos lawsuits is best summed up by this statement on the web site of one major tobacco company:

  • We believe that there is no legal basis for asbestos-related trust funds or asbestos companies to recover money from tobacco companies to offset damages assessed against them or settlements paid by the asbestos industry.
  • Similar to other third-party cost recovery claims, these claims are too remote to support any legal recovery.

Ironically, there has been at least one case where smoking and exposure to asbestos went hand-in-hand. It has been widely reported that between 1952 and 1956 the Lorillard Company sold over 10 billion Kent cigarettes with their Micronite filter, which was made of cotton, acetate and crocidolite asbestos, the most carcinogenic form of asbestos. Despite tests in 1954 that showed the needle-like asbestos fibers from the filter were being inhaled by smokers, the company didn’t change the filters until 1956. Ironically, Lorillard actually advertised the health benefits of their filter in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Other ads said that the filter “offers the greatest health protection in cigarette history.” Crocidolite asbestos is strongly associated with mesothelioma.

Whether or not you smoke, if you develop lung cancer after a previous exposure to asbestos, you may be entitled to compensation for your injuries. An attorney who deals with asbestos-related personal injury cases can help you recover the damages that you deserve.

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