The entangled historical relationship between mesothelioma and cigarette smoking continues in the aftermath of a grim 20th century legacy of confusion, misdiagnoses and a sustained lack of asbestos awareness in the UK. A January 2011 report published by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) shows figures relating to the effect of smoking combined with asbestos exposure has upon the risk of lung cancer mortality for asbestos workers in the survey period, 1971 to 2005.

Ironically, during the working period relating to the report, too often, information was withheld from company workforces employed in heavy industry where asbestos material was being manufactured or used everyday. Even though mounting medical evidence pointed to the deadly combination of exposure to asbestos and a history of cigarette smoking being likely to increase the possibility of developing lung cancer.

In addition, relaxed social attitudes to smoking throughout the peak period of asbestos use, even up until the 1970s and 80s, were particularly prevalent in the heavy industrial industries.

However, while lung cancer is a disease which affects just the lung tissue, mesothelioma attacks the lining of the lungs, heart, or abdomen, and is only caused by the breathing in of airborne asbestos dust fibres.

For many former workers who later succumbed to an asbestos-related disease, confusion over whether their lifelong smoking habit had given rise to the appearance of yet, undiagnosed mesothelioma or asbestosis symptoms some three or four decades later after first exposure, has shown to be another key factor in delaying a legal claim to mesothelioma compensation.

The HSE report revealed that of the 1,878 lung cancer deaths among the 98,912 UK workers surveyed who were exposed to asbestos, just 2 per cent of lung cancer deaths occurred to those individuals who had never smoked. It was also shown that the typical latency period of between 30-40 years had elapsed after first exposure to the victim passing away.

Further figures show that of those employees who worked with asbestos and who also smoked, an estimated 3 per cent of lung cancer deaths were attributable to asbestos only, 66 per cent to smoking only, and 28 per cent to the interaction of asbestos and smoking.

A separate study of cigarette smoking and exposure to chrysotile ( white) asbestos was also recently conducted with over 1,100 male workers in China, a centre of one of today’s major asbestos industries. It was found that over a three and a half times risk of lung cancer from smoking was observed in those working with high asbestos exposure to asbestos cement, insulation, friction or textile products in contrast to those working with low asbestos exposure.

Generally, survival rates of around five years for lung cancer patients are higher at 15 and 75 percent, while mesothelioma patients are considerably lower at 10 per cent with only a 4 to 18 months prognosis.