A five-year legal battle against Japan Tobacco by two former smokers and a widow has ended with damage demands thrown out, but a Japanese court for the first time clearly acknowledged the health risks of cigarettes.

“We were able to win a progressive ruling,” one of the plaintiffs, Masanobu Mizuno, 68, said on Friday. “I am deeply convinced the fight was worth it.”

The Yokohama District Court, in a ruling released on Wednesday, said there was a link between smoking and lung cancer and other respiratory illnesses, and that smoking may be addictive.

But it rejected the plaintiffs’ demand, filed in January 2005, for 30 million yen ($330,000) in damages, saying they smoked of their own will and there was no proof smoking had directly caused their sickness.

In a small victory in one of the world’s most smoker-friendly nations, the ruling’s wording on the health risks of tobacco was stronger than rulings for a similar Tokyo court case, filed in 1997. The plaintiffs lost that case too. The court said smoking was merely one possible cause of cancer and characterized quitting as easy.

Mizuno, who is so sick he comes to the courthouse in a wheelchair, smoked from age 15 to 51, and was hospitalized 11 times with emphysema during the trial. The other plaintiffs are the widow of Kenichi Morishita, who died of pneumonia and infection at 75, during the trial, and Koreyoshi Takahashi, 67, who lost a lung to cancer.

Awareness about the dangers of smoking and secondhand smoke is low in Japan, compared to the West. It is only in recent years that smoke-free restaurants, train stations and public streets have gradually becoming more widespread.

Although smoking rates have come down drastically since the 1960s when more than 80 percent of Japanese males smoked, about 40 percent still light up.

The lawsuit had demanded sterner warning labels on cigarettes, a ban on cigarette vending machines, and an acknowledgment that smoking is addictive and harmful.

Japan Tobacco Inc., a former monopoly that is still majority-owned by the government, argued that smokers are free to quit and cancer has multiple causes.

The ruling urged continued public discussion to shape policies on smoking and tobacco-selling.

Mizuno and Takahashi say they never expected to win in court, but want to send a message about their hopes for a society free of smoking-related illnesses. They collected 5,154 signatures for a petition supporting their cause over the years.

Mizuno said he hoped to decide next week whether to appeal.

“I can barely breathe now, and so I have to take it easy,” he told The Associated Press.