- Written by Doris Montag Doris Montag
Evidence of smoking was first documented in 1556 in a report of an English sailor “emitting smoke from his nostrils.” French diplomat and scholar Jean Nicot (origin of the word nicotine) introduced tobacco to France in 1560.
In 1925, Hungarian inventor Boris Aivaz patented the process of making a cigarette filter from crepe paper. Its purpose was to filter the fine flakes of tobacco in the rolled cigarette that often flecked off on the tongue.
This was objectionable to women who had begun to smoke. Companies added beauty tips, often made of cork, for the sake of, or sale to, women. They promoted smoking to women as a sign of liberation and independence.
It wasn’t until the 1950s that research linked smoking with lung cancer. In response, American cigarette companies spent millions of dollars to engineer a filter to reduce the health hazards of smoking.
They developed synthetic fibers in cigarette mouthpieces, but these created new problems. In 1952, the Kent Micronite introduced a filter that sucked particles out of the smoke, but the Micronite held asbestos fibers that were far more dangerous than tobacco smoke.
Philip Morris promised that an antifreeze chemical (diethylene glycol) in the mouthpiece would take “the fear out of smoking,” but the mouthpieces shed tiny fibers that could be inhaled into the lungs. The industry called it “fallout.” DuPont scientists experimented with Dacron, the same polyester that allowed for wrinkle-free pantsuits.
In 1953, a Reynolds Tobacco Company chemist, Claude Teague, invented a filter that could turn brown when exposed to smoke. It was introduced as Winston in 1954, the first successfully marketed filter cigarette.
It was followed in 1956 by Salem, the first filter-tipped menthol cigarette. The Belair menthol brand was launched nationally in 1960.
By the mid-60s, scientists realized that any material that effectively trapped particles also weakened the cigarette’s kick. The filter was designed to remove exactly what the smoker wanted from smoking.
Ultimately, the industry settled on filters being perceived by consumers as effective. They opted for the illusion that Teague’s filter was filtering (turning brown), despite the reality that filters do not make cigarettes any safer.
Filter cigarettes’ market share climbed from 0.5% in 1950 to more than 98% today. Filters are usually made from plastic cellulose acetate fiber, derived from bleached cotton or wood pulp treated with acetic acid and other chemicals.
Today filter ventilation is used to dilute the smoke. Ventilation holes vary in size and quantity, thus impacting the ease of inhaling smoke. Modifications in filter ventilation have created light and ultra-light cigarettes.
Other additives to filters include flavors (menthol), sweeteners, softeners (triacetin), flame retardants, breakable capsules releasing flavors on demand, and agents that will color the tobacco smoke.
On an environmental note, the cellulose acetate used in cigarette filters will eventually break down but never disappears. These plastic filters, containing toxic chemicals once smoked, are the most littered item in the world. They release their chemicals into the air, soil, and water and do not biodegrade for years.
Worldwide, every year, roughly 4.5 trillion cigarette butts are discarded, leading to over a billion pounds of toxic trash, according to American Nonsmokers’ Rights. Three-quarters of smokers report disposing of butts on the ground or out of a car window, making cigarette butts nearly 38% of all litter. Wow.
Doris Montag is a homespun historian and an exhibit curator who researches and displays historical collections of ordinary things, such as can openers, crochet, toy sewing machines, hand corn planters, powder compacts, egg cartons, and more. Contact or follow her on Facebook, HistoryofOrdinaryThings.