South Korea: Government Plan To Increase Cigarette Price Meets Public Backlash

South Korea’s Health department announced it would triple the price of cigarettes to curb the nation’s high smoking rate, prompting a new round of cigarette price disputes online. A Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDCP) study found that higher cigarette prices were the most effective policy tool to deter smoking and suggested increasing the price of cigarette from the current price of 2,500 Korean Won (USD 2) per pack to 8,000 won (roughly USD 7).

The percentage of male smokers in Korea reached 43 percent last year, while the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) average stands at a much lower 28 percent. The excessively low cigarette prices are believed to contribute to the nation’s increasing cigarette consumption. The KCDCP report also stated that if the cigarette price of 2,500 won had previously been raised to 8,500 won in 2007, the smoking rate would have dropped to 30.4 percent by now. Online, many Koreans have expressed that they agree that there is an urgent need to lower the smoking rate, but most of them are sceptical about the potential effectiveness of the policy shift.

An image of cigarettes from Wikipedia.

Blogger Pati35 whose father is a long-time smoker commented that raising the price more than three times is an excessive and inconsiderated for  a majority of lower income earners who depend on cigarettes as their only affordable stress release. The blogger called the government action a condescending move that points to an greater interest in the revenue generated by a hefty sin tax – 70 percent in Korea – rather than a sign of caring about public health.

일반 서민들의 수준을 생각한다면, 저런 가격을 쉽게 책정할 수 없을 겁니다…저런 식으로 줄이자는 것은 이제 담배도 있는 자들만 태울 수 있는 특권계층의 혜택이 되는 셈이겠지요… 비흡연자지만, 서민들의 스트레스 해소법 중 하나는 담배입니다…단순 스트레스 해소법을 넘어, 없는 분들의 유일한 낙이라고도 할 수 있을텐데요…아버지도 술은 못 드시고, 유일하게 즐겨하시는 것이 흡연입니다. 건강에 좋지 않기에 말려도 봤지만, 술도 드시지 못하고, 사회에서 쌓인 스트레스를 해소할 수 있는 많지 않은 방법 중 하나가 흡연이기에 그냥 기호식품으로 지켜보고 있죠…담뱃값 인상을 통해, 흡연율을 줄이자는 것은 어디까지나 근본적인 방법이 아닌 것 같습니다. 단순히 세금만 많이 벌어들이겠다는 것으로 생각되네요. 세금은 세금대로 걷고, 국민 건강은 생각한다고 생색은 생색대로 내려는 속내가 보이는 것 같아 참 그렇네요.

They (the government) could not have set that (8,000 won) as the adequate price if they have considered the ordinary people’s living situation. Lowering the smoking rate by this method is only making smoking a perk of the privileged class. Even though I am a non-smoker, one of people’s favorite stress releases is smoking… It can work sometimes as the only pleasure to those who don’t have enough money… My dad cannot drink, and smoking is the only thing he enjoys. Of course I tried to make him quit because of the health concern, but I finally dropped it and understood smoking as his taste, since it was the only legit stress release allowed to my dad who cannot drink alcohol… Lowering the smoking rate by raising the price is not a fundamental solution to the problem. This move is mainly focused on gathering lots of tax. It does not feel good to watch the government collecting tax money and acting all condescending, pretending they care so much about people’s health.

More than a few non-smokers have joined with smokers and approached this issue from the tax payer’s perspective, like non-smoking blogger Setre, who jokingly calls the smokers as patriots, in terms of taxes. The blogger recalls his childhood back in 80s when the middle-aged (a bit bullying) men used to smoke heavily in enclosed public areas like buses and trains and no one dared to complain about it; he pointed out that the changing social atmosphere turned hostile for smokers and now they have lost the tax payer’s rights on items they pay for.

현재 담배 한 갑당 흡연자들이 내는 세금은 1500원 가량이 된다. 일년이면 54만원, 10년이면 540만원을 세금으로 당신은 이미 낸 것이다. 세금 잘 내는 걸로 치면 흡연자들이야말로 가장 애국자가 아닌가…이제 흡연자들은 어디서나 눈총을 받는다. 사방이 탁 트인 공간에서도 혹시 모를 지나갈 행인을 위해 담배를 피워서는 안되는 분위기가 되었다. 이것이 맞다고 나도 생각한다. 그런데 이렇게 존중받지 못하는 흡연권을 가진 흡연자들이 내는 세금…세금에 대해서는 한 마디 할 수 있는 것 아닌가.

Currently, a smoker pays 1,500 won of tax per a pack of cigarettes. It will amount to 540 thousand won (USD 450) if paid annually and 5.4 million won (USD 4,500) over 10 years. If you gauge the patriotism by the tax, the smoker will may become most loyal ones… Now, the smokers are being frowned upon at any place. The social atmosphere of banning smoking even in open public spaces for possible passers-bys who may oppose to smoking was formed. I think it is right that this is done. But those smokers who are disregarded, those people still got a say on the taxes they pay.

Moderate people supporting the government’s move agree with the intent but are hesitant about how it is to be carried out. Blogger See4110 wished the increase to be less sudden, though there are plenty of reasons for the increase itself. The nation’s cigarette price per pack has remained the same for five years since being set at 2,500 won in 2005.

물가는 껑충 뛰었는데 담뱃값만 5년째 그대로라는 건 비합리적으로 보인다. 하지만 6000원을 올리는 건 사람들의 반발심을 살 것으로 보인다…그 수위를 넘기면 정책을 전면적으로 부정 할 일도 예상되기 때문이다. 6000원이라는 극단적인 선택보단 차근차근 올려나가보는 건 어떨까?

It is irrational that while the cost of living has jumped so high, the price of cigarettes stayed the same for five years. But adding 6,000 won to the price will bring people’s backlash. Instead of taking the extreme measure of increasing the price (to reach 8,000 won), why can't they (government) raise the price gradually?

Some instant reactions were bit desperate; many bloggers, like blogger Dino9587, said his dad has started stocking up cigarettes; several bloggers like blogger Fbgy1904 strongly urged smokers to quit smoking for their own benefits.

An image of smoking area in a train station from Wikipedia

Still, many have shown strong support for the government decision. As power blogger Kraze pointed out the increase should be enacted for the public health and welfare and for the environmental cause. The blogger referred to the failed attempt in 2006 when the former Minister of Health and Welfare, Yoo Si-min, had struggled to uphold the decision to increase the price of cigarettes by 500 won to pay for free vaccinations for children.  The blogger commented that there were, and still are, more smokers than non-smokers in Korea and that is why the attempt to increase the price of cigarettes often failed in the end and Korea still carries the bad reputation as a country where cigarettes are available for extremely low prices.

길거리 흡연도 줄어들겠죠. 비싼 담배를 길에서 대충 피고 버리긴 아까울테니까요. 3배 가까이 늘어난 세금으로 자신이 내 뿜은 담배 연기를 자기 혼자 모두 마시고 나올 수 있는 완전 밀폐된 길거리 흡연시설을 만들어 준다면 담배 한 개피를 피고도 10개피를 피는 효과를 거둘 수 있을 것 같구요..간접흡연이 줄어 들어 국민건강에도 도움이 되겠죠. 거리에 버려진 담배 꽁초, 침 등도 줄어 들어 청소 비용도 줄어 들 것 같습니다. 화장실에서의 흡연도 줄어들겠죠. 무엇보다 청소년의 흡연율을 잡지 못하더라도 흡연양은 줄일 수 있을 거라고 생각합니다.

It(Raising the price) will decrease the street smoking, because it will be such a wasteful to throw an expensive cigarette half-smoked in the street. If we can utilize the tax money increased by three times, we can build a special smoking booth sealed hermetically so a smoker can have inhale every smoke he makes, as if he smokes ten cigarettes at the same time…It will also be really helpful to public health in general, by lowering the second hand smoking. Large amounts of street cleaning fee will be saved as less cigarette butts and spits will be thrown, as well as less public restroom smoking. Moreover, we can cut down the youth smoking. We may not be able to stop the (increase of) smoking rate, we can lower the amount of cigarette the youth are consuming.

Whether the move to raise the cigarette’s price is indeed the government’s condescending move or not, it still gives a plenty of reasons to smokers that it is about the time to quit smoking.

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