Supreme Court rejects smokers’ damages suit

By Suk Gee-hyun

Health insurance agency to go ahead with suit against tobacco makers

  • Published : Apr 10, 2014 - 21:08
  • Updated : Apr 10, 2014 - 21:24
A customer chooses a pack of cigarettes at a convenience store in Seoul.  (Yonhap)
The nation’s top court on Thursday threw out a damages suit filed by ailing smokers seeking compensation from the country’s largest tobacco firm, KT&G, citing the absence of a causal connection between smoking and their lung cancer.

Ending the two 15-year-long tobacco lawsuits, the South Korean Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s ruling that there is a lack of proof that smoking was the specific cause of their cancer.

“It can’t be seen that KT&G tried to conceal information about the risk of smoking,” the court said in its ruling. “KT&G has no obligation to reveal all data from its analysis of the ingredients, and there’s no proof that the firm’s products can cause more harm than other cigarettes.”

As for the connection between smoking and lung cancer, the court said that smoking is not the only cause of lung cancer, and it can result from the combined influence of external physical, biological and chemical elements and internal elements of the human body.

KT&G welcomed the decision, saying the latest ruling clarified that it had not breached the law in producing and selling cigarettes.

The legal fight began in 1999, when 36 cancer patients and family members of smokers who died from the disease filed the suit against the government and formerly state-run KT&G.

According to court records, the plaintiffs claimed that KT&G added elements that increased the risk to smokers’ health and chance of addiction.

In 2007, the Seoul Central District Court ruled in favor of the Korean tobacco giant, citing a lack of evidence proving the smokers’ lung and laryngeal cancers resulted form smoking the company’s cigarette products. In 2011, an appeals court upheld the district court’s ruling, saying that KT&G had not provided false information about the risk.

The Supreme Court’s latest verdict is expected to affect the legal fight being planned by the state-run National Health Insurance Service against major tobacco firms at home and abroad.

The NHIS said the top court’s verdict would not change its stance in the upcoming lawsuit.

“The rulings have shown that it’s difficult for an individual to win a suit against a tobacco firm. It only increases the need for the national health insurer to step up and take measures,” an official from the NHIS told local media.

The agency said it would file a complaint against global companies such as British American Tobacco, KT&G and Philip Morris on Monday.

The Korea Tobacco Association criticized the insurer, saying it should scrap the plan to avoid wasting tax payers’ money, based on the judiciary’s past rulings in favor of tobacco producers.

Thursday’s court decision ended the last of four compensation lawsuits against tobacco firms brought in Korea, all by individuals or families. So far, there has been no precedent in the country for successful legal action against a tobacco firm.

By Suk Gee-hyun (