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Boost for smokers' court battle

A multi-billion pound compensation battle against British tobacco companies moved a step nearer today as the High Court ruled the litigation should get under way.

A date for the hearing, expected in 18 months, could be set this month but may still falter if the tobacco companies move to have the action struck out. At an administrative hearing on Tuesday, details of which were disclosed yesterday, the companies failed in their attempt to halt the action, which would have left it in limbo.

Forty seven lung-cancer victims have joined together in a group action against Gallaher and Imperial for their alleged failure to limit health risks to smokers. If they win, tens of thousands of others are likely to be eligible for compensation, opening the way to a global settlement.

The case follows last month's historic offer from American tobacco companies of a pounds 225bn fund to settle claims against them in the US.

Martyn Day of Leigh Day solicitors, who is representing the 47 British claimants, said: "The US settlement has undoubtedly changed the atmosphere. The massive figure will have an impact on the courts. It is all or nothing for both sides."

The case is being fought on a "no win, no fee" basis after legal aid was refused last year. The Legal Aid board decided that the chances of success were not sufficiently great to justify public expenditure.

A spokeswoman for Ash, the anti-smoking group, said: "The whole climate of opinion has changed since then. The tobacco industry has realised they have to come to a settlement. In the US they faced the prospect of legal action from so many smokers they couldn't afford the risk of losing."

The British victims will claim that the two companies, Gallaher and Imperial Tobacco Group failed to cut tar levels in their cigarettes and print warnings when it became clear that this would have reduced cancer among smokers.

The group alleges that the manufacturers, which produce four-fifths of Britain's cigarettes, knew - or should have known - by the 1950s that their products were lethal but negligently failed to comply with a legal duty of care to minimise risk. Gallaher makes Benson and Hedges and Silk Cut; Imperial makes Embassy.

Gallaher and Imperial argue that the US settlement has no relevance to the UK. They say they have been printing health warnings on packets since the 1960s - before it became a legal obligation - and that taxes on cigarettes more than pay for the pounds 610m which the Health Education Authority estimates the National Health Service spends annually on treating smoking- related problems.

Mr Day said that if the group action is won, the companies could be at risk of claims for the next 10 to15 years from people who began smoking in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

Assuming that an average claim is worth about pounds 50,000, he said there was a potential legal liability of between pounds 1bn and pounds 2bn a year over the 10 to 15-year period.