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Health agency to sue tobacco makers

NHIS faces hurdles as Health and Welfare Ministry remains cautious

South Korea’s public health insurance agency decided Friday to start a legal battle against the tobacco industry to take back health costs allegedly caused by smoking-related diseases.

The state-run National Health Insurance Service held an executive board meeting Friday evening and the majority of its members voted for filing a lawsuit against tobacco makers.

The decision marks the first case of a South Korean public agency mounting a legal attack against the tobacco industry, which includes the largest cigarette maker KT&G and a handful of foreign companies.

But the agency might face a stumbling block in pursuing legal action as the Ministry of Health and Welfare, which supervises state-run health agencies, remains cautious. The ministry earlier asked the NHIS to discuss the legal option rather than making a final decision, citing the lack of consultations and preparations.

The health agency is reportedly considering filing the lawsuit around February, seeking financial compensation of about 60 billion won ($56 million). It eventually aims to raise the compensation level to 1.7 trillion won.

The compensation level was based on medical costs used to treat patients with lung and larynx cancer. In previous individual lawsuits against the tobacco industry, the court acknowledged that the two diseases might have been caused by smoking.

The agency said it spends about 1.7 trillion won annually on treating smoking-related diseases. This accounts for 3.7 percent of the total insurance expenses for all illnesses. South Korea is estimated to have 14 million smokers.

The NHIS said it would use the compensation for treating and preventing smoking-related illnesses should it win the legal battle. But the chances of winning the lawsuit remain uncertain. Four tobacco lawsuits were filed by individual smokers here. The court already ruled in favor of the tobacco industry in one case and the remaining three are still pending, with legal experts expressing doubt.

“Even if the agency proves the causality of smoking and health problems, it’s very difficult to prove why the tobacco industry should be held accountable for the medical costs,” said Song Ok-rial, a law professor at Seoul National University. 

By Lee Hyun-jeong