Big Tobacco in the dock

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Big Tobacco in the dock

A meaningful ruling came out yesterday in a lawsuit filed by a group of smokers against Korea Tomorrow & Global (formerly Korea Tobacco & Ginseng), which manufactures and sells tobacco products. The Seoul High Court ruled that there was considerable correlation between smoking and lung cancer. It added that the plaintiffs had been smoking for a long period of time and suffered lung cancer, acknowledging the epidemiological relevance.

The ruling is the first-ever confirmation of the common knowledge that smoking increases the risk of lung cancer. The appeals court overruled a lower court’s ruling that there was no evidence that proved the plaintiffs suffered from lung cancer as a result of smoking. If the Supreme Court upholds the ruling, it may cause huge repercussions as the decision provides legal grounds for many smokers with lung cancer to file separate lawsuits against tobacco companies.

The appeals court, however, upheld the lower court’s ruling that KT&G was not liable for compensation because the plaintiffs failed to prove that KT&G was involved in illegal practices in the course of manufacturing and selling tobacco.

In other words, the court didn’t agree with the plaintiffs’ argument that the government and KT&G attempted to deceive customers by covering up the dangers of tobacco and mislead them with sales gimmicks, such as calling several tobacco brands “light” or “mild” to make them appear less harmful to the health.

The harmful effects and nicotine addiction have been proven through medical research. As a result, an avalanche of lawsuits were filed not only by individuals or groups but also by health insurance companies and governments in the United States. In 1998, a state government in the U.S. won a lawsuit against tobacco companies and landed a whopping amount of compensation - $246 billion - through a so-called Mass Settlement Agreement. The family of a smoker who died from lung cancer also won a lawsuit against Phillip Morris and received $80 million as punitive compensation.

The victory of KT&G, however, does not grant it immunity from being responsible for causing health problems. It is regrettable that KT&G refused to accept the court’s arbitration plan demanding the company establish a public foundation to alert smokers to health risks.

The central and local governments should also do their bit by increasing the bans on smoking in public places.
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