Without legal aid, the group's claim is unlikely to proceed, lawyers say.
The case follows a ruling by the US Supreme Court in June that health warnings on cigarette packets did not give tobacco companies immunity from litigation.
This decision prompted two central London law firms to place advertisements in newspapers asking to hear from smokers, ex- smokers and passive smokers who thought their health had been harmed. They were particularly keen to be contacted by people who took up smoking in the 1960s after studies started connecting tobacco with cancer, but before health warnings appeared on cigarette packets.
The firms say they were inundated with inquiries, and intend to pursue between 180 and 200 cases, representing a range of diseases allegedly caused by cigarettes.
However, the tobacco industry is mounting a fierce defence. Its representatives are understood to have told the Legal Aid Board that the litigants have no chance of success, and therefore should not be given public money that could run to millions of pounds. They say the smokers should not be treated as a group and should be told to fight their claims individually.
Solicitors say that the industry's approach is worrying. Robin Lewis, a partner at Bindman's, one of the firms representing smokers, said: 'The tobacco industry has got a right to make submissions, but it may be difficult to explain to my clients that these fantastically wealthy corporations are doing this.'
Roberta Tish, of the Legal Aid Practitioners' Group, accused the industry of using tactics that 'smack of political pressure - the tobacco lobby is extremely powerful'. The case was a matter of 'great public import' which should be heard by the courts.
However, Chris Hodges of McKenna and Co, representing the tobacco firm Phillip Morris, said: 'I don't follow that argument. If she agrees that a person is entitled to make representations, then any citizen is entitled to make representations.'
If the Legal Aid Board refuses to help the smokers, they would be forced to fund cases themselves.Reuse content