According to a variety of studies over the last two decades, while cigarette smoking does not lead to mesothelioma, cigarette smokers who are exposed to asbestos are about 50 to 84 times more likely to develop asbestos-related lung cancer.
The relationship between smoking and various forms of cancer – especially lung cancer – is well established. There is little evidence that smoking alone increases a person’s chance of developing mesothelioma. Only exposure to asbestos appears to be a definitive factor in causing mesothelioma.
Can the Effects of Smoking Increase the Risk of Mesothelioma?
Although smoking does not directly contribute to mesothelioma, it is possible that smoking can cause conditions in the lungs that make it easier for asbestos to become embedded and cause inflammation, leading to cancer. These include:
Weakening of Lung Tissue: According to the Centers for Disease Control, smoking weakens the lungs. This may make it easier for asbestos fibers to become lodged in the linings of the lungs.
Decreasing Overall Health: Smoking can cause a host of medical problems separate from (or in addition to) lung cancer. Having good overall health is an important factor in mesothelioma prognosis, meaning that smoking can significantly reduce a patient’s treatment options and life expectancy.
Increased Mucus Production: Cigarette smoke irritates air passages, causing them to produce more mucus. This blocks the passage of air and affects the lungs’ ability to cleanse themselves.
Can Smoking Increase the Risk of Asbestosis?
While smoking does not appear to affect the development of mesothelioma, there is a less clear relationship between smoking and asbestosis, a scarring of lung tissue. At least one study published in 1995 has shown an increase in asbestosis among smokers who are exposed to asbestos. However, other studies have found no such correlation.
Those who think that smokers may be at a greater risk of developing asbestosis believe the relationship is due to inflammation caused by asbestos lodged in the lung linings. However, as with mesothelioma, there is a long latency period with asbestos, and proving a relationship is difficult.
Whether or not smoking can increase the risk of asbestosis, it certainly can exacerbate symptoms of the disease once a person has it.
Do Cigarette Filters Contain Asbestos?
By themselves, cigarettes contain literally thousands of chemicals, at least several dozen of which are classified by the International Agency for Research of Cancer has classified as carcinogens. To supposedly make cigarettes “healthier,” some brands have filters intended to remove some of these substances, but their effectiveness is much disputed.
However, even with the filters, there can be some danger. Studies have shown that at least one brand of cigarettes – Kent, manufactured by Lorillard Company – contained as much as 25 percent asbestos in them. These cigarettes were sold in the United States between 1952 and 1956, with up to a half million packs being sold each day.
While Kent is the only brand known to have contained asbestos, it is possible that other cigarette brands have contained asbestos at various times.Sources
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The health consequences of smoking: a report of the Surgeon General. Atlanta: US Department of Health and Human Services, 2004.
Barry G, Newhouse ML, Antonis P. Combined effect of asbestos and smoking on mortality from lung cancer and mesothelioma in factory workers. British Journal of Industrial Medicine. 1985;42:12-18. doi: 10.1136/oem.42.1.12
Ginsberg M, Friedman R, Bates GE, et al. The Mutational Burden of Pleural Mesothelioma with a History of Smoking and Asbestos Exposure. Mesothelioma and Malignant Pleural Disease: From Bench to Bedside to Community. American Thoracic Society 2016 International Conference. May 13-18, 2016, San Francisco.
Muscat JE, Wynder EL. Cigarette Smoking, Asbestos Exposure, and Malignant Mesothelioma. Cancer Research. May 1, 1991;51(9):2263-2306.
Berardi R, Fiodoliva I, De Lisa M, et al. Clinical and pathologic predictors of clinical outcome of malignant pleural mesothelioma. Tumori Journal. 2016;102(2):190-195. doi: 10.5301/tj.5000418