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[Newsmaker] Health agency kicks off tobacco lawsuit

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Published : 2014-04-14 20:42
Updated : 2014-04-14 21:00

Cigarette packs with warning labels sit on display at a convenience store in Seoul. (Yonhap)
The state-run health agency launched a high-profile lawsuit against three tobacco makers on Monday, aiming to cover rising medical costs that it claims stem from smoking-related diseases.

The National Health Insurance Agency kicked off its legal fight with KT&G, Philip Morris Korea and British American Tobacco Korea, marking the first case in which a South Korean public agency is seeking compensation from tobacco makers. Japanese tobacco maker Japan Tobacco International ― originally included on the defendant list ― was excluded from the suit as its business had a very small share in the Korean tobacco market, officials said.

The NHIS is asking for compensation of 54 billion won ($52 million), based on the agency’s internal data related to medical costs from 2003 to 2012 spent on treating lung and larynx cancer in patients who smoked for more than 30 years.

“It is the agency’s responsibility to prove the specific causality between smoking and disease and the illegal acts by tobacco companies,” the NHIS said, adding it will use big data-based research as well as cooperation with experts and international bodies such as the World Health Organization to stage the fight.

The agency said it would try to increase the amount of compensation it is seeking in the process of the lawsuit.

The NHIS’ report last year showed that the agency spent about 1.7 trillion won on smoking-related treatment, which accounted for 3.7 percent of the total insurance costs for all illnesses.

The odds of winning the legal battle remain unknown given that the country’s top court recently ruled against individual smokers.

Last Thursday, the Supreme Court rejected a 15-year damage suit filed by dozens of ailing smokers seeking compensation from KT&G, citing a lack of proof for the causality between smoking and disease, as well as the alleged illegal acts by the local tobacco giant.

The Korean Smokers Association, one of the largest groups of smokers here, also warned against the NHIS’ decision, saying the agency should listen to the top court’s message.

The NHIS, however, expressed confidence in its legal fight against the tobacco companies, citing its vast amount of research data. As for the lawsuits by individuals, the agency said, plaintiffs had difficulties in securing related documents from KT&G.

It also stressed that there are some U.S. legal cases in which foreign tobacco companies acknowledged their illegal acts, which will help make the agency’s case easier here.

Civic groups welcomed the agency’s legal move, saying they would actively support the NHIS in a battle with tobacco giants.

“(The organization) believes that the NHIS has higher odds of winning the case since it has accumulated medical data. We hope the legal action helps bring public awareness of the harmfulness and toxicity of cigarettes,” said an official from the Korean Association on Smoking or Health, an antismoking advocacy group.

By Lee Hyun-jeong  (rene@heraldcorp.com)

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