At the opening of a crucial stage in a compensation battle which has been brought by 52 British lung cancer sufferers, Brian Langstaff QC said thatthere was, by 1957, no doubt of the significant health risk attached to smoking cigarettes.
Reputable research on tobacco tar products in the Fifties culminated in 1957 with a report from the Medical Research Council, which concluded that cigarettes caused cancer.
Mr Langstaff said that any responsible manufacturer would be aware of that and had a duty to alter its product so as to minimise the risk. He alleged that between 1957 and 1971, the technology was available for the tar level in cigarettes to have been progressively reduced from well over 30mgs per cigarette to no more than 10 mgs.
The court is to hear eight test cases so that it can decide whether 36 of the 52 cases can proceed, despite the fact that the plaintiffs are "out of time" for failing to sue within three years of lung cancer diagnosis.
The hearing, which paves the way for a full trial - due in January 2000 - is expected to last two weeks, with a ruling from Mr Justice Wright expected after Christmas.
The hopes of the plaintiffs have been raised by a succession of awards of damages against tobacco companies in the United States. But those victories have been largely based on state laws, which allow state governments to sue the tobacco companies for the costs of treating the people they are deemed to have harmed. Dozens of individual cases, such as those being brought in Britain, have failed.
Mr Justice Wright must weigh the merits of the case and the balance of prejudice to either side to decide whether to exercise his discretion, under the 1980 Limitations Act, to allow the cases to proceed.
Mr Langstaff said the eight had suffered injury because the cigarettes they smoked between the Fifties and Seventies contained more tar than was reasonably safe or appropriate.
As far as the plaintiffs were aware, neither of the companies involved - which between them had some 80 per cent of the market - had ever publicly accepted that cigarettes caused lung cancer and that the risk rose with the tar content.
"Their position is not asserting the contrary - but not accepting the truth of those two central planks. There has been a failure by both companies to accept the obvious."
The hearing was adjourned until tomorrow.
Next week a White Paper will be presented to MPs which claims that cigarette companies are deliberately targeting young people.
Government tactics to reduce smoking among young people could include bringing forward a ban on billboard cigarette advertisements by a year to 2000.
The European Union has ordered tobacco ads to disappear from hoardings by 2001.Reuse content