Twenty three people, all suffering from lung cancer and aged from their mid-50s to their early 70s, are suing Gallahers and Imperial Tobacco for not warning them of the dangers of smoking when they took it up.
They are being represented on a "no-win, no fee" basis by solicitor Martyn Day, as legal aid has been turned down. The cases are expected to come to court in about 18 months' time.
Mr Day said yesterday: "This admission will help us to prove to the courts in the UK that the firms knew the truth but refused to accept it for public relations reasons. The UK and US firms have always acted together in issues of health and maintained a unified position - this is the start of the facade cracking. It is now likely that many more people will jump on the bandwagon of taking legal action against them."
The admission by Liggett was also welcomed by the British Medical Association, Ash (Action on Smoking and Health), the Cancer Research Campaign and the British Lung Foundation.
Dr Sandy Macara, chairman of the BMA, said: "At last the tobacco industry is being forced to come clean about its marketing tactics. Today's young people are being cynically exploited and their future endangered."
Amanda Sandford, a spokeswoman for Ash, said: "After decades of denial and deceit, the tobacco industry is finally being forced to admit that nicotine is highly addictive and that smoking causes cancer and other diseases."
Dr John Moore-Gillon, chairman of the British Lung Foundation, said: "Liggett's move is likely to be motivated by cynical business calculations rather than a miraculous conversion to decent civilised behaviour. But whatever the reasons, this is a great step forward for people damaged by smoking and for the millions of children not yet hooked on the habit."
And Jean King, head of education at the CRC, said: "This represents a remarkable U-turn by the tobacco industry and vindicates the strong stand that agencies like the CRC have taken for many years now - often in the face of aggressive, almost bully-boy tactics - by cigarette manufacturers."Reuse content