[EDITORIALS]Smoking Tariff a Burning IssueBeginning next month, the tariff on imported cigarettes will be 10 percent, far lower than the originally planned 40 percent, after the trade talks with the United States held earlier this month. Washington's pressure into the market, which caused the tariff cut, angers us. But we are angrier about the government's irresponsibility, for it neglected public health.
The Washington Post reported Tuesday the Bush administration has intervened on behalf of U.S. tobacco companies to stop Korea from imposing new requirements on foreign firms seeking to sell and manufacture cigarettes in the country. The newspaper also reported that the administration has been coming under fire from American anti-smoking activists for being much friendlier to the tobacco industry.
Public health advocates complained that American cigarettes were contributing to an increase in smoking in Asian markets, compensating for a decline in U.S. smoking, according to the Washington Post.
Public health is as important in other nations as it is in the United States. The Bush administration has neglected this fact. It is is ridiculous that Washington said that the tariff was a basic issue of fair trade and insisted Seoul imposed discriminatory regulations. Korea was not the only country to impose a 40 percent tariff on cigarettes. The European Union and Mexico have imposed as high as a 57.6 percent and 67 percent duties, respectively. U.S. tobacco firms might be hurt by a 40-percent tariff. As they had been exempted from customs so far, imposition of 40-percent tariff would deteriorate the price competitiveness and make their market share decline. But that decline is the industry's problem, not an issue in which the government should intervene.
The Korean government should have taken a firm attitude instead of being pressed by the United States. Seoul should have been wise enough to make use of American anti-smoking activists' views against the Bush administration's policies in order to turn the negotiation circumstances to its advantage. The government might have considered that the United States is a negotiating partner on automobile and steel trade disputes as well as tobacco. And, the government may say that it has not yielded too much, as the tariff in this year has been slashed to 10 percent but it is scheduled to rise year by year and to finally reach 40 percent in three years. As a way of raising the duty, the government plans to apply a tariff-rate quota, which would charge a lower tariff up to a certain import ceiling and a higher rate for imports beyond that. The system originally aims at stabilizing prices and activating the trade of goods. It is certainly wrong to apply such a system to tobacco, a harmful product. In addition, it is unlikely that Washington will be in favor of Korea's interests in negotiations for automobiles and steel, in exchange for Korea's concession in the negotiations on cigarettes. We recommend the government seriously consider renegotiations with the United States.
Korea and the United States should abolish or revise the memorandum of understanding on tobacco made in 1988. It has been blamed for an unequal treaty, because Korea should forgo duties on imported tobacco in return for maintaining a monopoly on the manufacture and distribution of domestic brands and should consult with Washington in advance before a revision of the regulations. After a revised tobacco bill, which passed the National Assembly, it would be proper to abolish the memorandum of understanding or revise the provision on prior consultations with the United States.