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Suit Against Kent May Test Tobacco Industry's Mettle : Courts: Victim blamed cancer on asbestos in the cigarette filter. Its maker contends the illness could not have been from smoking that brand.

November 05, 1995|MYRON LEVIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If the filter meant extra risks for Kent smokers, the danger hardly ended there. Whole families were devastated by asbestos disease in the small communities of West Groton and Rochdale, Mass.--where Hollingsworth & Vose, a major employer, made the filter material under primitive conditions, according to court papers and state inspection reports.

Elizabeth Jacobs buried her husband and brother, both Hollingsworth & Vose workers who died of asbestos disease. Then, in 1985, Jacobs herself died of mesothelioma at the age of 54. Her only known asbestos exposure came from washing the dust from her husband's clothes.

The operation was a "dust-creating monster," said Dr. James Talcott, an oncologist at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston and co-author of an epidemiological study of the Hollingsworth & Vose workers.

Published in 1989 in the New England Journal of Medicine, the study tracked 33 of the cigarette-filter workers. Twenty-eight had died, compared to 8.3 deaths expected. Of the five survivors, four were suffering from asbestos disease.

At least a dozen lawsuits were filed against Hollingsworth & Vose by workers and their families, resulting in settlements totaling millions of dollars. At least a handful of other claims were settled with former Lorillard employees who suffered asbestos disease after working with the filter material at cigarette plants in Kentucky and New Jersey.

In the Braun case, however, defense lawyers say they will be able to prove the Micronite filter was not the cause of death. According to Ohlemeyer, the Lorillard attorney, the defense will show at trial that an analysis of autopsied lung tissue revealed asbestos fibers, but not from crocidolite asbestos.

But Braun's widow and four children contend that the companies are liable for Braun's shortened life and painful death.

They described Braun as a man with an insatiable thirst for knowledge--a World War II and Civil War buff who started piano lessons in his 50s. But cycling was Braun's special passion. That he slid so rapidly from robust health to having to rest while crossing a room was particularly hard for the family to bear, said Bruce Braun, his 32-year-old son.

"My father . . . was quite healthy and in very good shape," said Perry Braun, another son. "We had every expectation that he would live to a ripe old age and enjoy all of his grandchildren."

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