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MPs to quiz tobacco firm executives

THE HEADS of the UK tobacco conglomerates are to be summoned before a Commons select committee to give evidence on when their companies knew there were clear links between the cigarettes they produced and cancer.

The hearings, before the Select Committee on Health, could replicate US congressional hearings which exposed a cover-up by American cigarette manufacturers over links between tobacco and cancer.

It will be the first serious attempt in this country to get the companies to reveal their confidential, internal reports on the links between their products and cancer since the failure, in February, of a legal action by a group of cancer victims.

The 36 victims abandoned their action for compensation against Gallaher and Imperial Tobacco after a judge ruled that they were diagnosed with the disease more than three years before lodging their claims.

The failure of the case led many to believe that the tobacco firms would not face a further challenge, but the select committee is determined to demand full exposure of documents and scientific advice about cancer, dating back to the 1950s.

The committee has the power to call for people and papers, and its Labour chairman, David Hinchliffe, told The Independent he would use his powers to get at the truth. Kenneth Clarke, the former chancellor, who is now the deputy chairman and director of British American Tobacco, could be called to give evidence.

"We want to know who knew what, and when," said Mr Hinchliffe. "We will be seeking similar information in respect of British tobacco companies that was revealed in the United States, particularly information that was not put in the UK public arena."

Mr Hinchliffe said the committee had agreed in private to go ahead with the inquiry in the next session of Parliament. He was assured by legal advisers that after the failure of the legal action, the tobacco companies could not claim the inquiry was sub-judice.

ASH, the anti-smoking group, has been pressing for such an inquiry.

Clive Bates, its director, said: "One of the memorable images was of the heads of the seven US tobacco giants raising their right arms to swear on oath that they did not believe nicotine was addictive. I would like to see the same done in this country. You don't swear an oath before the select committee in the Commons, but you lie before a select committee at your utter peril."

In the US, the evidence uncovered in the 1984 congressional hearings was used to pursue compensation claims in the courts, but in Britain, that has, so far, proved impossible.