South Korean health authorities are set to flex their legal muscles against tobacco firms to recoup rising health costs from smoking-related diseases.
The state-run National Health Insurance Service said Tuesday it would use “every possible means” including “filing massive lawsuits” against cigarette makers.
There have been a number of individuals filing lawsuits against tobacco firms in Korea. But this is the first time a public office has considered suing both Korean and foreign cigarette makers.
The health insurance body said it has proven that smoking causes “significant damage” to public health through a study which tracked 1.3 million national insurance subscribers in Korea over 19 years.
|Students knock down a cigarette mascot at a ceremony to launch an anti-smoking campaign promoted by the Ministry of Health and Welfare on Aug. 5. (Yonhap News)|
According to the study jointly conducted by the NHIS and Yonsei University, smokers ― both men and women ― have a three to seven times higher risk of cancer than non-smokers. Men, for instance, have 6.5 times and 4.6 times higher chances of larynx and lung cancer, respectively, than those who don’t smoke.
The possibility for women smokers to get larynx and pancreatic cancer is 5.5 times and 3.6 times higher, respectively.
In 2011, the NHIS spent 1.69 trillion won ($1.51 billion) on treating smoking-related diseases. The medical cost for treating these illnesses accounted for 3.7 percent of the total insurance payments for all diseases, it said. Among smoking-related illnesses, it took 352 billion won to treat patients with cerebrovascular disease, 236 billion won for heart disease and 182 billion won for lung cancer in 2011, it said.
Legal experts say the damages could amount to trillions of won because the NHIS can claim for recovery of their tobacco-related health care costs for the last 10 years.
The NHIS is likely to exercise the right to indemnity, guaranteed by the national health law. The law allows the health insurance operator to claim damage against a third party if it is found to be accountable for causing medical expenses.
In 1994, more than 40 states in the United States filed lawsuits against the tobacco industry and settled the case with a payment of $246 billion.
Experts said it will be somewhat difficult to prove why the tobacco industry is accountable for medical expenses spent to treat smoking-related illnesses. To this, KT&G, the country’s largest tobacco maker, countered NHIS’ claim, saying it won’t be able to seek compensation unless a cigarette company commits acts that break the law.
By Cho Chung-un (firstname.lastname@example.org)