David Hinchliffe was in his usual forthright mood as he faced five of the tobacco industrys biggest players across committee room 15 of the Commons last week.

The Labour chair of the health select committee told the neatly suited and coiffed rank of chairs and chief executives that he would like to start with a blunt question, which as a Yorkshireman I usually find I can get away with.

When we were in the US recently, Mr Hinchliffe went on, we saw archive material of some of your colleagues giving evidence to Congress on oath that turned out to be a complete pack of lies. What guarantees this evidence will not be the same as that given in the States?

It is safe to assume this was not the start the tobacco companies had been looking for as they contributed to the committees inquiry into the tobacco industry and the health risks of smoking.

Once they had all come up with a variant of I am here to tell the truth, Martin Broughton, chair of British American Tobacco, read out a statement that aimed to be rather more emollient.

We accept that in the most straightforward and commonly understood sense, smoking is the cause of certain serious diseases (and) the popular understanding today is that smoking is addictive.

Nevertheless, our consumers are neither fools nor helpless addicts.

Our shareholders are not immoral.

Shopkeepers selling cigarettes are not drug pushers.

Ours is a lawful business, generating huge revenues for governments, selling a legal product that forms part of a lifestyle matrix, balancing short-term pleasure against the long-term risks depending on each, individuals choice.

The statement concluded by suggesting the tobacco debate had reached stalemate with extreme positions - a laissez-faire approach on one hand, social engineering to eliminate tobacco on the other - being maintained.

But, it suggested, there was a third way - government, public health groups and UK tobacco firms working together to ensure that:

only adults smoke; the public is appropriately informed of the risks; smokers are encouraged to smoke fewer and lighter cigarettes and quit sooner; non-smokers are accommodated; and the effort to research and develop lower-risk cigarettes and communicate that to consumers be encouraged and supported, unencumbered by opportunistic criticism.

MP after MP pursued the question of whether the government was right to claim, in its Smoking Kills white paper, that 120,000 people die each year because they smoke, and that smoking causes diseases such as lung cancer and emphysema.

Peter Wilson, executive chair of Gallaher Group, said: Smoking can cause serious diseases, although he warned against talking of exact numbers when no causal mechanism between smoking and disease has been established.

Smoking is dangerous and we market our product on the basis that everybody knows the dangers of our product, he told Labour MP Howard Stoate. The key thing for me is that this is a matter of individual freedom.

David Davies, vice-president of corporate affairs for Philip Morris Europe, went further, telling the committee: We have acknowledged the statistical association for decades.

Today our position is quite clear: we acknowledge the consensus of the public and scientific community that the only way to be completely safe is: if you are a smoker, stop smoking; if you are not, do not begin.

But Gareth Davies, chief executive of Imperial Tobacco Group, would only say it had never sought to challenge the public health message that smoking is the cause of illnesses, while insisting: Smoking has not been shown to be the cause of lung cancer and these other diseases.

Lib Dem MP and Isle of Wight GP Peter Brand said this position confused him. But Mr Davies managed to maintain it.

Mr Broughton said that since the 1950s BAT had taken the link as a working assumption and worked to develop products to address it.

Indeed, witnesses were keen to stress that all their companies had worked hard since the 1950s to try to eliminate the harmful aspects of tobacco smoke and then move on to develop safer products.

Mr Wilson said the first approach turned out not to be a fertile way forward because smoke was found to have up to 4,000 elements to it.

But he said Gallaher had achieved enormous reductions in tar levels, which had been the consensual way forward for both government and the industry.

Witnesses were therefore annoyed with suggestions from the British Medical Association, among others, that the research had only been done to avoid the risk of litigation.

Dr Axel Gietz, vice president of RJ Reynolds Tobacco (UK), said it was not doing the work because there is a sword of Damocles hanging over my head, although Philip Morriss Mr Davies said it would be silly to deny that companies were not concerned about litigation.

Nor were they impressed by suggestions from Conservative MP Simon Burns that their companies had fought health warnings all the way, while targeting cigarette advertising at children and lucrative markets in the developing world.

Mr Wilson said companies had voluntarily put health warnings on packets in the early 1970s, although there had certainly been a dispute with government in the 1980s about interpreting European rules on how big they should be.

Mr Broughton said his company did not target children, and studies suggested that peer pressure, parental behaviour and societal issues were factors in whether people started smoking, not advertising.

The health select committee will return to tobacco advertising in later sessions. These do not look set to be a meeting of minds.