Social costs of smokingSouth Korea’s state health insurance agency is preparing legal action against tobacco firms to seek compensation for the billions of dollars it spends annually to treat smoking-related diseases. It is the country’s first damages suit by a state entity. The Korea Tobacco Association immediately responded that the lawsuit could stir up unnecessary social conflict. The Ministry of Health and Welfare also indicated opposition to the state insurer’s move.
Smoking is one of the most common health hazards. According to the World Health Organization, smoking kills more than three million people worldwide per year. The country’s smoking rate has been declining, but the smoking rate among youths remains the world’s highest. Cigarettes are the cheapest in Korea among developed economies, and the country still tolerates smoking in some public places. The state insurer’s plan underscores smoking’s health risks and the significant costs for the public health system.
Whether tobacco manufacturers should be responsible for the diseases smoking causes remains questionable in courts at home and abroad, despite the fact that tobacco litigation has existed for more than half a century. Tobacco companies have prevailed in lawsuits, from the first case in 1954 to the 1980s. Plaintiffs only began to have limited success in the late 1990s.
Still, lawsuits could bring about meaningful development. First of all, it would increase awareness about just how harmful and serious smoking is. Everyone knows that smoking can cause lung cancer, but not many know how addictive smoking can be. Deceptive manufacturers hide the health risks and the use of other hazardous materials in tobacco, and fail to warn consumers. A lawyer representing the national insurer said companies will be questioned on a range of issues.
The case could be a landmark in precipitating laws related to tobacco. The United States and Canada have passed acts stipulating joint accountability guidelines for individuals and manufacturers. Cigarettes are taxed with 1.5 trillion won ($1.4 billion) worth of health-promotion duties. But just a small amount is used to help in the prevention and treatment of smoking-related illnesses. The publicity on the case procedures also could serve as an impetus for a nonsmoking campaign.
Economic government offices may worry about falling tax revenues from tobacco companies and a rise in cigarette prices because of litigation. But if smoking is reduced, social costs related to smoking-related treatment and care could go down and labor productivity could go up. Some suspect the motives behind the insurer’s lawsuit. The agency must specify who, why and how it will sue in order to ease misunderstanding. It should also consult with the Health Ministry to adhere to public interest.