Twelve cancer sufferers who started smoking between 1936 and 1955 are claiming that the companies were negligent in continuing to sell tobacco products after it became clear in the 1950s that high levels of tar contributed to the disease.
The tobacco industry is expected to put up fierce resistance to the claims, which could open the doors to a flood of further actions if successful. Imperial said yesterday it had strong defences which it would pursue vigorously.
The case is making legal history as the first group action by British smokers and the first to be undertaken on a "no-win, no-fee" basis. Martyn Day, the solicitor who is acting for the plaintiffs, said yesterday's move was very significant. "We have been fighting for four years to get to this stage and it is a great relief that we have got there. The phoney war is over and the real battle has begun."
Mr Day said about 60 cancer sufferers had signed up on a conditional fee basis. He estimated that the final number could eventually total between 100 and 200, which at an average claim of between pounds 50,000 and pounds 60,000 could mean an eventual total of as much as pounds 12m. Further claims will be made over the next few months, he said. A full trial is not expected before October 1998.