The state health insurer’s lawsuit against three tobacco companies has a chance of success in the local court, experts said, even though Korea’s top court has previously ruled against individual claims against tobacco makers.
The state-run National Health Insurance Service filed a lawsuit on Monday against KT&G, Philip Morris Korea and British American Tobacco Korea to seek an initial compensation of 54 billion won ($52 million) to recoup treatment costs for smoking-related diseases.
Responses to the NHIS’ lawsuit were mixed as the Supreme Court ruled against dozens of ailing smokers who sought compensation from KT&G last Thursday. It upheld the lower court’s ruling that smoking was a matter of free will and individual accountability, and added that there was no proof of intentional illegalities committed by tobacco makers to make smokers addicted to cigarettes.
Three other tobacco lawsuits by individuals or families have been heard in South Korea, but none ruled in favor of smokers.
Experts, however, said the health insurer’s lawsuit differs from the previous cases, which failed to prove the link between smoking and illnesses.
“It has a much higher chance of winning because this lawsuit is about medical costs, not about individual accountability. The health agency is asking (the companies) to cover the treatment costs for smoking-related illnesses,” said Seo Hong-gwan, professor of cancer science and policy at the National Cancer Center.
Unlike the individuals who lost their legal battles here, the NHIS is armed with a vast database that it hopes will support its case, as well as ample funds, legal experts said.
The agency is said to have obtained important confidential documents from former workers of the tobacco makers to aid its legal battle.
“Proving the wrongdoing of the defendants requires a great amount of time and money. Plaintiffs of the individual’s lawsuit had financial hardships and difficulties in obtaining documents from the powerful KT&G,” lawyer Kim Sung-soo, who led the case against the Korean tobacco giant, told The Korea Herald.
While the agency initially considered seeking up to 1.7 trillion won against tobacco makers, it limited the compensation cost to 54 billion won ― the medical costs that the agency spent from 2003 to 2012 on treating lung and larynx cancer patients who smoked for more than 30 years ― to increase its odds in the legal fight.
The agency annually spends about 1.7 trillion won on treating smoking-related diseases, which accounts for 3.7 percent of the total insurance costs for all illnesses, an NHIS report showed.
Other experts pointed out the need to prove the intent of cigarette makers. “The health agency will have to prove through legitimate documents that the tobacco companies intentionally led smokers to become addicted to nicotine to bolster the business,” said Kim Dae-hyun, professor of family medicine at Kei Myung University.
The public perception about smoking and its harmful effects is also expected to weigh in. “What the majority of the public thinks of the issue will affect the case,” said Cho Hong-sik, professor of law at Seoul National University.
By Lee Hyun-jeong (firstname.lastname@example.org)