The tobacco industry will face its biggest legal challenge yet next month, when it will finally appear in the dock to fight a $280bn claim from the US Government for deceiving the public over the health risks of smoking for more than 50 years.

The $280bn lawsuit from the US Government against the tobacco industry is the largest suit ever launched by the Department of Justice and promises to reveal whether scientific research on nicotine was withheld, destroyed and ignored by a number of companies in a conspiracy designed to keep “profits above the public health”, dating back to 1954.

The secrets of the tobacco industry have already been the subject of an Oscar-nominated Hollywood blockbuster. When Jeffrey Wigand, who was head of research and development at Brown & Williamson, British American Tobacco’s former US subsidiary, described cigarettes as the “delivery device for nicotine” to the US media, the tobacco industry was almost choked by the biggest public health lawsuit to date.

His revelations that tobacco companies knew nicotine was addictive and that carcinogenic material was knowingly added to cigarettes were made public by the American investigative journalist Lowell Bergman, whose work inspired the film The Insider, starring Al Pacino and Russell Crowe. Mr Wigand’s testimony helped bring about a $206bn settlement between the tobacco industry and 46 US states for the costs of treating sick smokers.

On 13 September, the sequel to that settlement will open to the public, with a federal trial set to take place in Washington DC that has taken five years to bring to court. A number of major cigarette companies, including BAT, are on trial on “fraud and deceit” charges that were originally designed to fight the mafia. Along with BAT stands Philip Morris, R J Reynolds, Lorillard and Liggett, which represent the best-known brands in cigarettes such as Marlboro, Lucky Strike, Pall Mall and Camel.

These giant corporations stand accused of conspiring to wilfully mislead the public over the health dangers of smoking in a pact that began in January 1954. The US Department of Justice claims that a group of chief executives met at the Plaza Hotel in New York to agree a “long-term public relations campaign based on fraud and deception”. It is claiming $280bn from the past profits of these companies on racketeering charges, making it the largest case of its kind in history.

President Bill Clinton began the action in 1999 and originally sought to recoup the healthcare costs for treating smoking-related diseases. Deaths from smoking in the US amount to 400,000 a year, and $20bn a year of taxpayers’ money goes on treating smokers.

Janet Reno, the then Attorney General, said at the time that over the past five decades, tobacco companies had “conducted themselves without regard to the truth, without regard to the law, and without regard to the health and life of the American people”. She claimed the tobacco industry had waged an “intentional, co-ordinated campaign of fraud and deceit, designed to preserve their enormous profits whatever the cost – in human lives, human suffering and in medical resources”.

BAT has already spent “many millions” on legal costs. The trial could run for six months, but it continues to believe it has no case to answer. A spokesman for BAT said yesterday: “The defence case has enormous merit and we believe the judge will find in its favour.”

The tobacco companies are appealing against the Government’s claim to past profits, as well as the claim that they are jointly liable for damages. This appeal is set to run in parallel to the main trial.

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