Puffing plaintiffs get a day in court

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Puffing plaintiffs get a day in court

A lawsuit pitting nine smokers against the government at the Constitutional Court reignited a debate over whether the state should be held accountable for diseases that smokers argue are caused by smoking.

The plaintiffs claim that laws allowing the sale, manufacture and import of cigarettes infringe on their right to good health. But the Ministry of Strategy and Finance, which represents the government, argued that the state has no authority to restrict people’s freedom to enjoy items of their preference.

“The government should take care of public health and protect people from the harm of cigarettes,” said Lee Seok-yeon, the plaintiffs’ attorney. “But it fails to fulfill that duty by approving the manufacturing, selling and import of tobacco. That violates Article 36 of the Constitution, which outlines the state’s responsibility to ensure public health.”

The government responded that “adults’ freedom to enjoy smoking also needs to be ensured.”

“There are people who enjoy high-risk sports. But the state can’t step in and say that you shouldn’t because it’s dangerous,” said Park Gyo-seon, a lawyer defending the Finance Ministry.

“Every individual has the basic right to do what they want if they are willing to bear the potential bad effects associated with it,” Park said, adding that the policy direction should focus on protecting people from secondhand smoke rather than imposing an all-out ban.

The legal battle dates to 1999 when 36 people - cancer sufferers or relatives - filed a lawsuit against KT&G, a former state monopoly and the country’s largest tobacco firm.

The plaintiffs argued that longtime smoking caused their disease and that the company failed to inform victims of the potential dangers of smoking. They sought about 365 million won ($340,545) in damages, but a court rejected their claim in 2007, citing insufficient evidence to prove a direct link between individual illnesses and smoking.

“Different factors can cause lung cancer. They can be genetic factors, living and eating habits,” the court ruled in 2007. But the judges urged tobacco firms to be more aware of their social duty and set up clinics.

The nine plaintiffs at the Constitutional Court are among 36 original plaintiffs.

Legal experts predict that the chances of a verdict for the plaintiffs are slim.

BY PARK MIN-JE [ejpark@joongang.co.kr]

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