They’ve been called the deadliest fraud in the history of human civilisation. Now the Government wants to ban them.

American historian Robert Proctor once called them the deadliest fraud in the history of human civilisation. Now the Government wants to ban them, as part of its Smokefree Aotearoa 2025 Action Plan. Nikki Macdonald investigates the chequered history of the cigarette filter.
In the beginning, they were a marketing ploy. Crinkled crepe paper or cotton wool plugs touted to trap irritants. Or a wafer of cork wedged against the tobacco, to stop mushy cigarette paper sticking to your lips.
But later, the humble cigarette filter became a tobacco company survival tool.
Health experts have long argued theyre the ultimate consumer con, a conjurors trick that creates an illusion of safety, but delivers none. So is it time for filters to butt out?
A 1933 ad promised Christchurch Star readers a cigarette that keeps you fit.
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The filter tip will keep you fit
Kiwis loved their smokes. Tobacco use climbed from 0.9 kilgrams a year per person in 1890 to almost 1.4kg a year in 1920.
But ready-made cigarettes were slow starters, making up less than half of all tobacco use until 1955. By then, three out of four Kiwi men smoked and a third of women were puffing on that Virginia tobacco.
While filters had already made an appearance, early models were mostly crude stubs designed to hold in that lucrative leaf.
The modern cigarette filter, made from plastic fibres, has its origins in the 1950s.
But in 1902, a British patent was filed for a cigarette filter, entitled New or Improved Means for Preventing or Minimising the Deleterious Effects of Tobacco Smoke. So began more than a century of efforts to transform smoking with a 2cm white wad of promise.
At that stage, the American surgeon-generals 1964 report linking smoking to lung cancer was still a distant disaster. But some smokers especially the genteel ladies increasingly lighting up found dragging on pure tobacco harsh and irritating to the throat.
A 1933 Du Maurier cigarette ad promises “clean smoke”.
Du Mauriers filter cigarette, though, promised to keep you fit. Smoke clean smoke, an ad promised Waikato Times readers in 1933. Such advanced filter tips banished lip stains and collected tar thus guarding physical fitness.
They were not to be confused with inferior cotton wool plugs, which rendered cigarettes tasteless and unsatisfying. The real filter, du Maurier claimed, consists of five layers three of creped vegetable tissue interleaved with two of pure cellulose fibres.
Touted as the biggest cigarette advance in 40 years, the filter would preserve everything from your voice to your tennis game, du Maurier promised.
In 1940, De Reszke was offering Kiwi smokers a choice of three filter tips.
They werent the only ones getting in on the filter action. By 1940, tobacco company De Reszke offered Otago Daily Times readers three filter options for its cigarettes a cork, cotton wool or ivory tip.
For all the masterful marketing, filter cigarettes remained a minority draw. In 1950 in the United States, only one in 100 smokes came with a filter tip. But everything changed when doctors began linking the two Cs cigarettes and cancer.
While the surgeon-generals 1964 report concluding cigarette smoking is causally related to lung cancer in men is considered the defining moment for smoking and health, the rumblings started much earlier.
A 1938 study linked smoking to a shorter lifespan, and New Zealands Health Department put out its first smoking warning in 1945.
Suddenly, a humble porous plug became the key to the survival of a multimillion-dollar industry.
50-year smoker Richard Terrill remembers early marketing promising filters would suck the nasties out of cigarettes.
Taking the fear out of smoking
Richard Terrill was a late starter. By the year he was born, 1945, smoking was so ubiquitous even the woman in the Berlei bra ad was doing it.
Most of his mates were smokers, but he wasnt a fan. Hed tried his dads Players Plains no filter and they made him sick.
He remembers the marketing though. When filters became widespread, in the 60s, the messaging was all the same.
They were much better for your health. They extracted all the nasties out of your cigarettes, the RSA support worker recalls.
Cigarette filters were promoted as protecting smokers’ health.
Terrill didnt start smoking until he was 25 right around the time he heard about cancer for the first time. His then wife a smoker dared him to. She gave up and he got addicted.
Hes always smoked filter cigarettes, but theyre unrecognisable from the early days. The first iterations looked like screwed-up paper. Then there were the De Reszke corks: They were as rough as buggery actually, but you didnt take the skin off your lips.
A fireman, Terrill and the boys would have a company-bought packet in the glovebox of the fire truck. Theyd light up after dousing a fire often caused by a smouldering cigarette butt. With no breathing apparatus, puffing on a cigarette helped them cough up the dense black fire smoke lurking in their lungs.
While Terrill noticed slow changes to the stubs of his cigarettes, tobacco company documents and patent registers tell of a full-scale innovation war.
Terrill wouldnt smoke cigarettes without filters theyre too strong and burn the throat.
As Stanford University researcher Bradford Harris explains in his 2011 British Medical Journal paper The intractable cigarette filter problem, during the 1950s and 60s American cigarette companies spent millions in pursuit of a paper-covered plug that would filter out the gathering winds of their destruction.
Natural fibres such as cotton wool were rejected as too hard to standardise and machine at the required rate of 250 cigarettes per second. So chemical giants Dow and Du Pont were enlisted to engineer synthetic options.
In 1952, tobacco company Lorillard introduced its Kent Micronite filter. Made from blueish strands of crocidolite fibre, enfolded inside crinkled crepe paper, it successfully filtered out 30 per cent of the cancerous tar. There was only one problem crocidolite is a type of asbestos. The filter lasted only four years and left a legacy of smokers and factory workers who developed asbestos-related cancer.
The Kent Micronite filter had the dubious distinction of being the only asbestos product ever made to be intentionally put in the mouth. Source:
Innovators also considered everything from charcoal to kelp to moisture capsules to enhance the filters ability to absorb tar.
1950 saw the introduction of the first filters made from cellulose acetate a bioplastic byproduct of the timber industry that was then used in photographic film and is now used to make glasses frames.
A tow, or ribbon, of crimped cellulose acetate like a crepe bandage is stretched and teased into something resembling cotton wool. Its sprayed with plasticiser and formed into a rod, and hey presto a cigarette filter.
But the intensive filter research uncovered two problems, Harris points out. By the mid-1960s cigarette designers realised that the intractability of the filter problem derived from a simple fact: that which is harmful in mainstream smoke and that which provides satisfaction are essentially one and the same.
Those asbestos-tipped Kent Micronites, for example, were judged by smokers to be too effective, producing a bland taste and tough draw.
Diagram from 1961 Eastman Kodak filter rod patent application
And the researchers noticed something else some fibres from the plastic filters were also entering smokers lungs. In private, they called it fallout. In public, they denied it existed.
In the 1960s, companies started punching holes in filters. Side ventilation helped draw air into the smoke, diluting toxic gases and improving filter efficiency. When tested on smoking machines, they showed a reduction in tar. But as it turned out, smokers arent like robots they simply changed the way they smoked, blocking the ventilation holes or dragging longer or more quickly, to get the same hit.
Even as tobacco companies were realising their genuine attempts to make cigarettes safer seemed destined to fail, the public was sucking on filters with optimistic gusto.
As a 1954 New York Times headline declared: Cigarette Industry Convalescing: Filter Prescription Seems to Help.
A 1962 survey of Kiwi women smokers found eight out of 10 smoked filter-tips, with some opting for the filter just in case there is something in this smoking and lung cancer business.
Otago University professor Janet Hoek says cigarette filters are a massive consumer deception.
The consumer con
There are two reasons Otago University professor of public health Janet Hoek believes the governments proposed ban on cigarette filters is long overdue.
The first is because theyre a massive consumer deception.
People think that they are reducing the harm thats posed by smoking, and they just arent.
Once tobacco companies realised they couldnt actually deliver safe smoke, they fixated instead on creating a perception of safety, Hoek argues.
Their thinking changed from something that may have been able to reduce the risk that smokers faced, to something that simply created the illusion that they were doing something.
Eve cigarettes came with a pretty filter an obvious appeal to women.
She quotes Stanford historian Robert Proctor, who called filters the deadliest fraud in the history of civilisation. Theyre just put on cigarettes to fool people, basically.
Theres no better illustration than the filter devised by RJ Reynolds chemist Claude Teague, which changed colour after smoking, suggesting it had soaked up noxious chemicals.
While the use of such colour change material would probably have little or no effect on the actual efficiency of the filter tip material, the advertising and sales advantages are obvious, Teague noted.
Hoek calls it the ultimate in consumer deception. The marketing illusion continued for decades, with claims of lower tar, and high-tech filters. Now, some filters come with balls of menthol liquid which infuse a minty flavour when crushed.
Filters have been used as a way for cigarette makers to claim hi-tech innovations.
While research from 1970 to the early 2000s all supported the idea filters had done little to protect smokers, a 2010 International Journal of Cancer study by American and Japanese investigators found 50 years of filter innovation had had an impact.
The shift from non-filter to filter cigarettes appears to have merely altered the most frequent type of lung cancer, from squamous cell carcinoma to adenocarcinoma.
Braden Fastier/Nelson Mail
Cigarette butts are New Zealands most common item of litter.
Awash in butts
In 2014, Otago University public health researcher Nick Wilson and his team lurked at Wellington and Lower Hutt bus stops and counted. Of the 112 cigarettes smoked, 84 per cent were flicked into gutters, onto pavements or into vegetation.
When the rain comes, those yellow stubs swirl down the grates and into the sea. Thats the second reason Hoek supports a butt ban.
Camden Howitt and his Sustainable Coastline volunteers find them at the high-tide mark, hiding under other flotsam and jetsam. Bleached and soggy, theyve probably already leaked their toxins into the ocean arsenic, tar, heavy metals. But there they will stay for the decade or more that it takes the plastic fibres to disintegrate.
All the toxic chemicals that you are not wanting in your lungs, when youre throwing that on the ground, youre effectively releasing those toxins into the environment … Its a gnarly thing, Howitt says.
Sustainable Coastlines co-founder Camden Howitt says cigarette butts are toxic to the environment.
A 2019 Keep New Zealand Beautiful national litter audit found cigarette butts were the most common item of litter.
They also make up 5 per cent of all rubbish found in Sustainable Coastlines litter monitoring. Of the 213 national survey sites, an old Nelson boat ramp is the worst, with an average of 511 butts per 1000m².
And that threatens both flora and fauna. A 2011 study found one smoked cigarette butt placed in a litre of water released enough toxins to kill a marine fish. Smoked filters with no residual tobacco were slightly less toxic, with two butts being fatal. In a surprise to the researchers, the leachate from five unsmoked filters was also toxic enough to kill the marine topsmelt.
In 2010, a Wellington health worker found a bird’s nest lined with cigarette butts.
Howitt points out theyre also potential fish food. While working in the Cook Islands, he saw a turtle that had been found floating in the lagoon. A necropsy revealed a belly full of more than 400 cigarette butts.
It was a beautiful, probably quite old turtle, thats suffered a pretty horrible death at the hands of a few smokers.
Research into the environmental effects of cigarette butts found they could reduce germination success and shoot length of some plants. Source: Ecotoxicology and Environmental Safety
Another paper found discarded filters can affect the germination of plants.
Back at the RSA, Terrill supports a butt ban. Hes trying to give up and reckons he would have kicked the habit years ago if cigarettes had no filters. But not because he thinks theyre safer.
It just makes it a little easier to smoke. I wouldnt smoke a filterless cigarette. Theyre too strong. Its the smoke it burns the back of your throat.