An appeals court in South Korea rejected the first lawsuit against a tobacco company following a 12 year legal battle fought by lung cancer sufferers and their families.
Seen as a test case, Seoul High Court -- partially upholding a lower court ruling -- found there was no direct evidence that the victims' cases were caused directly by cigarettes produced by KT&G.
The case began in 1999 when 36 people -- cancer sufferers or relatives -- sued KT&G, the country's largest tobacco firm. Five of the plaintiffs have since died.
KT&G, a former state monopoly, was privatised in 2002 and controls more than half the domestic cigarette market.
The plaintiffs argued that long-time smoking caused the disease. They said the company failed in its duty to inform victims of the dangers of smoking by concealing most of its manufacturing records.
They sought about 365 million won (now $326,000) but both sides described the suit as a test case and said money was not the main issue.
A lower court rejected their claim in 2007, citing insufficient evidence to prove a direct link between individual illnesses and smoking and inadequate evidence of flawed products.
That court said KT&G did not violate its obligations because it printed a warning message on packs.
The appeals court acknowledged a "dynamic" link between smoking and cancer but said there was no illegal conduct in KT&G's cigarette design, production or warning messages.
"There is no evidence to prove that cancer was caused directly by KT&G's cigarettes," it said.
However, judges urged tobacco firms to be more aware of their social duty and set up clinics. They said the current case could open the door for future damages suits.
The lawyer for the plaintiffs, Bae Geum-Ja, said she would take the case to the Supreme Court.
"We are very disappointed by the ruling that does not ask the company to compensate for suffering by the plaintiffs and their families," Yonhap news agency quoted her as saying.
"The court ruled in favor of a company that causes damage to people's lives."
Company lawyer Park Kyo-Sun urged the plaintiffs to stop "meaningless" litigation. "Due to these suits, KT&G's reputation has been tarnished enough in the past 12 years," he said in a statement.
South Korea's adult smoking rate was around 40 percent last year compared to the 2008 average among all Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development member nations of 27.3 percent.
The government is trying to reduce the rate and parliament has passed a law calling on provincial governments to restrict smoking in public places.
From 2012, Seoul city will ban smoking at bus stops, in parks, near schools and in other public spaces.
But cigarettes remain cheap, with a locally made pack of Marlboro costing just 2,500 won.
A dozen anti-smoking campaigners held a brief protest outside the court.
"Considering more than 50,000 people die from smoking every year (in South Korea), the verdict in favor of the cigarette company neglected the people's rights to life," Korean Association of Smoking and Health said in a statement.