Former smokers denied in health compensation claim

They chose to smoke, judge says

by Hiroshi Matsubara

A group of sick and dying former smokers seeking compensation from Japan Tobacco Inc. and the government had their case thrown out of the Tokyo District Court on Tuesday because the judge ruled they had taken up smoking of their own free will.

The damages lawsuit, filed in 1998 by seven former smokers who began suffering what they claim are tobacco-related diseases, was the first of its kind.

The plaintiffs, who smoked regularly for decades, contracted diseases such as throat cancer and emphysema. Four have since died.

They were each seeking 10 million yen from JT and the government.

In denying the plaintiffs’ demand for compensation, the court said that despite evidence of the general ill effects of smoking, there is no proof of a causal link between the plaintiffs’ smoking habits and their specific illnesses.

But at the same time, the court recognized — for the second time — the grave health risk posed by tobacco. In 1984, the same court recognized tobacco’s health risks in a case in which a group of nonsmokers demanded the shinkansen provide more nonsmoking cars.

On Tuesday, the court said it is a matter of common sense, backed by numerous scientific studies, that tobacco increases the risk of diseases such as lung and throat cancer. The judge also said cigarettes contain a cocktail of chemical substances that pose grave health risks.

JT, meanwhile, said that it is hard to blame only tobacco because cancer is triggered in a complex way.

Presiding Judge Kikuo Asaka also denied the plaintiffs’ claim that nicotine is highly addictive.

“Nicotine is addictive, but it is not strong enough to override the free will of each smoker,” Asaka said. “It is hard to acknowledge that smokers cannot quit despite their will and efforts.”

The plaintiffs also claimed JT sold tobacco without fully providing information on its health risks and addictive nature. But the court ruled that the warning JT prints on cigarette packets is a sufficient deterrent. The message reads, “Because smoking may damage your health, please be careful not to smoke too much.”

The group had also demanded that the government share part of the payout because it had neglected its duty to promote public health by regulating tobacco sales and advertising.

They also called for stricter regulations on the sales and advertising of tobacco products.

Plaintiff Matao Yamamoto, 69, who has pulmonary emphysema, said the judge’s assertion that nicotine is not highly addictive is nonsense.

“I had no choice but to quit (after contracting emphysema), but it was still hard to do so,” he said. Yamamoto, a former cab driver from Kyoto who now must carry an oxygen canister everywhere he goes, took up smoking when he was 14.

Yoshio Isayama, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs, said the ruling is 30 years behind similar tobacco-related compensation trials in the United States and Europe. He said the group will immediately appeal the ruling.