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Patients lose damages suit against cigarette firms

Cigarette makers once again escaped liability for lung cancer prevalence among their customers as an appellate court ruled in their favor Tuesday.

However, the ruling seems to be a step forward from a lower court’s verdict as it acknowledged the health risks of smoking.

Judge Seong Kee-moon of the Seoul High Court said, “There seems to be cause-and-effect relations between smoking and cancer prevalence under certain circumstances. But the plaintiffs have failed to prove the exclusive linkage to effect a court ruling.”

The judge ordered KT&G, the country’s monopolistic cigarette maker, to show a “responsible” attitude by establishing treatment facilities for smokers and holding antismoking campaigns.
(Yonhap News)
(Yonhap News)

KT&G’s lawyer Park Ghyo-sun said, “Lung cancer is a very complicated disease and cigarettes shouldn’t be blamed for its cause. However, KT&G, which has spent 165 billion won ($147 million) in the past three years for public campaigns, will strive to follow the court’s recommendation.”

Bae Geum-ja, attorney for the plaintiffs, said they would appeal the case, saying, “It is a shame that the court failed to follow up with the international trend of acknowledging cigarette makers’ responsibility in public health but took the side of tobacco manufacturers.”

Lee Jin-soo, head of the National Cancer Center, said, “The ruling is as bizarre as it could be: acknowledging the damage but still denying the responsibility.”

The case was initiated in 1999 by seven lung cancer patients who claimed to have smoked KT&G cigarettes, then state-funded Korea Tobacco and Ginseng, and have had inadequate information from the manufacturer about the health risks. The number grew to be 31 including their families, demanding a total of 307 million won in compensation.

They alleged that KT&G used chemical additives to enhance the addictive effect on smokers, which the cigarette manufacturer flatly denied. The patients also refused to accept the settlement offer of KT&G’s establishing a smoke-free foundation.

Currently, only 26 remain with five patients having passed away.

In 2007, the Seoul Central District Court ruled against the patients, saying, “Lung cancer can prevail in different circumstances. We cannot conclude that individual smokers’ cancer was solely due to their smoking.”

Lung cancer is one of the most prevalent cancers among Koreans: According to the National Cancer Center, 17,846 of new cases were reported in 2007, taking fourth place following gastric, thyroid and colorectal cancers.

Lawyer Bae claimed that 85 to 90 percent of the patients are smokers.

The legal battles between tobacco firms and smokers date back to 1954 when the first case was filed in the U.S. Through the 1990s some courts have become more favorable to smokers and in 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the American tobacco firm Philip Morris to pay $50 million to the bereaved family of Richard Boeken, who died of lung cancer after having smoked two packets of cigarettes every day since he was 13.

Some other countries such as Japan, France and Germany have tended to remain conservative, saying smoking is an individual choice.

By Bae Ji-sook (baejisook@heraldcorp.com)
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