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Tobacco firms, health insurer go to court

Just a day after the government announced an 80 percent hike in cigarette prices, the first hearing for the state health insurer’s high-profile lawsuit against major tobacco firms was held on Friday.

The National Health Insurance Service filed a lawsuit against three domestic and foreign tobacco makers ― KT&G, British American Tobacco and Philip Morris ― in April, seeking damages of 53.7 billion won ($52 million) for payouts over tobacco-related diseases.

The ongoing legal case is the first lawsuit in South Korea filed by a state-run organization, rather than NGOs or individuals, against tobacco firms.

On April 10, just days before the NHIS submitted its accusation to the Seoul district court, the Supreme Court rejected a suit filed by some 30 lung cancer patients and their families against KT&G, the biggest tobacco company in South Korea.

The country’s highest court said there was a “lack of proof” that the patients contracted lung cancer solely because of smoking. The court also stated that smoking, ultimately, is a choice, not a compulsion.

Despite the Supreme Court case, the NHIS has been openly confident about the ongoing lawsuit since April, arguing it has enough legitimate medical evidence to prove the link between tobacco use and lung cancer.

During the trial on Friday, attorney Jeong Mi-hwa, the NHIS’ legal representative, made a presentation on the harmful effects of tobacco that have been “purposely concealed” by the tobacco industry. She also argued that the industry has been adding substances such as ammonia to enhance the addictiveness of nicotine.

In the ongoing lawsuit, the NHIS is using U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler’s 2006 ruling that tobacco companies engaged in racketeering, by misleading the public about the health hazards of smoking for years.

She ordered tobacco companies to stop using terms such as “low tar” and “light” on their products, as a number of studies suggested that low-tar cigarettes were no less harmful than regular cigarettes, and no difference was found in lung cancer rates between smokers of high-tar and low-tar products. The judge also ordered companies to advertise that they had been deceiving the public about the health dangers of tobacco.

According to the World Health Organization, cigarettes kill 5.4 million smokers from direct use and another 600,000 nonsmokers through secondhand smoke each year.

In South Korea, home to almost 10 million smokers, an estimated 57,000 die every year due to smoking-related diseases, including lung cancer.

Also on Friday, the Korean government announced those who hoard cigarettes will be fined up to 50 million won.

If the parliament approves the government’s current plan, Korean smokers will have to pay 2,000 won more for a pack of cigarettes ― which currently costs 2,500 won on average ― starting in January.

By Claire Lee (