The Supreme Court yesterday cleared the way for public disclosure of health-related evidence prior to next month's trial of a product-liability lawsuit brought by the husband of a heavy smoker who died of lung cancer.

The justices, without comment, left standing a June ruling by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in the case of Antonio and Rose D. Cippolone. She smoked cigarettes for 42 years and died in 1984, when she was 58.

The defendants in the case, which is pending in U.S. District Court in Newark, N.J., are Liggett Group Inc., Philip Morris Inc. and Lorillard Inc.

Judge H. Lee Sarokin has set the start of jury selection for Jan. 19. It is not known how long before then any of the evidence -- thousands of documents and depositions -- may become available.

The companies had fought a prolonged battle to keep the papers confidential until their admission at trial. If "taken out of context and left unexplained," some of the materials could open the companies to "embarrassment, oppression and apparent incrimination," they argued in the 3rd Circuit.

But in the appeals court opinion, Chief Judge John J. Gibbons said the companies had "never specifically demonstrated how dissemination would hurt their businesses."

Yesterday, plaintiff's lawyer Marc Z. Edell said it was "significant" that the Supreme Court had denied a defense petition for review of the 3rd Circuit ruling. He said the court's action is "important because it will give access to health organizations and others ... to information which has never been seen before {about} the ... internal workings of the cigarette industry ... "

In addition, he said, other plaintiffs' lawyers in similar cases "will have access to the fruits of our 4 1/2 years' worth of labor and will not have to redo that which has been done already."

Charles R. Wall, a lawyer for Lorillard and Philip Morris, said the companies were "obviously disappointed" by the high court's action, but called it "not significant in the overall posture of the case." He added, "We think our position is right."

The court battle began in July 1985 when Sarokin ruled that except for trade secrets, the First Amendment gives the public and plaintiffs' counsel a constitutional "right to know what the tobacco industry knew and knows about the risks of cigarette smoking and what it did or did not do with regard to that knowledge."

The ruling upset a magistrate's sweeping order barring Edell from disclosing documents, testimony and other materials obtained in pretrial discovery. Sarokin, emphasizing that he was making no finding as to the truth or falsity of allegations relating to the materials, said that he "cannot be a party to their suppression if they are true," and that the defendants' role, "if any, in concealing or misrepresenting information regarding the risks of smoking is not entitled" to the protection afforded business secrets.