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Regulating tobacco in South Korea

Publication Date : 19-04-2014

 

Smoking is an everlasting subject of debate. The debate usually concerns just how harmful it is to human health and the extent to which the tobacco industry should be regulated.

This longstanding debate has been intensifying in Korea lately in the wake of two landmark litigations, one of which ended in favor of the industry with the other having just been set in motion.

In the closed case, the Supreme Court rejected a suit by 36 individuals seeking 474.7 million won (US$458,000) in damages for lung cancer that the plaintiffs claimed was caused by smoking.

The top court ruled that it could not prove that smoking was the sole cause of the disease. It also said there was not sufficient evidence that the defendant, KT&G, attempted to conceal information about smoking’s health risks.

The ruling, which came after a 15 year legal battle between the plaintiffs and the government and the tobacco company, was the fourth of its kind in the country.

The tobacco industry, however, was not allowed to bask in its hard-won victory. Undeterred by the court ruling that again frustrated antismoking campaigners, Korea’s state health insurer on Monday filed a suit seeking an initial 53.7 billion won in damages. The suit targets three tobacco firms - KT&G and the local units of Philip Morris and British American Tobacco.

The National Health Insurance Service says the damages it is seeking were based on the data of its payments to patients diagnosed with three types of cancer between 2003 and 2012 who smoked at least a pack a day for more than 20 years.

The insurer said it filed the suit to offset medical costs because it spends more than 1.7 trillion won each year on treating smoking-related diseases.

The litigation is historic in that it marks the first time a state organisation in Korea has taken tobacco firms to court. Nevertheless, it is too difficult to forecast what the outcome will be.

Whatever its outcome, the lawsuit itself should provide fresh momentum for antismoking campaigns.

It is thus encouraging that hundreds of civic organisations and advocacy groups across the country have already issued or signed statements supporting the NHIS suit against the three tobacco firms.

There is a more radical group of antismoking campaigners. A group of nine plaintiffs has asked the Constitutional Court to determine whether the manufacture and sale of tobacco violates the Constitution. They first filed the petition two years ago and recently replaced their attorney and submitted more documents to the court.

The idea of shutting down the entire industry may sound too radical for now, but it symbolises the global movement by a growing number of people and countries to curb smoking.

Australia offers a good example. In 2012, it became the first country in the world to ban company logos from cigarette packets and instead have them display graphic health warnings that many still find shocking.

So it was hardly surprising that Philip Morris recently announced it would cease production of cigarettes at its factory in Moorabbin, Australia, citing tough regulations there.

What is bad, especially for us Koreans, is that the company decided to relocate the production to its plant in Korea. What was not said publicly is that Korea is a better place for the tobacco business. This is hardly a blessing, even though it would create a few more jobs.

One wonders where all Korea’s notorious red tape has gone. It is certain that we cannot tell the difference between sectors to regulate and those to deregulate. There is no doubt that smoking is harmful, regardless of whether a court ruling punishes those who make money from the fatal habit.

 

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