Will you still want that drink?

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Will you still want that drink?

King Yeongjo of the Joseon Dynasty is known to have abhorred alcohol. He fought persistently against the intoxicating liquid during his lengthy 53-year reign. He punished a high-level military officer, Yoon Koo-yeon, with death in 1762 for violating prohibition of alcohol. Court aides complaining of such harsh punishment for having a drink were all sacked and kicked out.

History also shows a liquor ban was popularly used during famine years. The first-ever prohibition here, introduced by King Daru of Baekjae Kingdom (28-77 A.D.), was brought about because of famine.

The United States made manufacturing, trade and sales of alcohol illegal nationally for 14 years from 1919, succumbing to the temperance movement by Protestants disapproving of the negative social impact of Americans’ drinking behavior.

The campaign caught on across the Pacific in Joseon, under Japanese rule at that time, led by religious leaders here. An editorial in a Christian newspaper in 1927 read: “Spending on liquor amounts to 83,429,170 won a year. That can cover living expenses for 417,145 people a year when assuming living costs of 200 won per person… Do you still want that drink?”

Prohibition was not without side effects and backlashes. Corrupt officials in the Joseon Dynasty frequently raided and burst in on saloons to fatten their pockets. When King Jeongjo, Yeongjo’s grandson, succeeded to the throne, he questioned the effectiveness of prohibition. “My grandfather, the king, took a man’s life for drinking, and yet alcohol survived.”

Prohibition in the United States triggered smuggling and proliferation of black markets. Alcohol warehouses and drugstores served as a gold mine for the mafia and gangsters.

It is hard to find extensive sumptuary law on alcohol in modern states. Instead, there are public place and time restrictions, religious proscriptions and taxes. Funds from public and religious organizations keep their distance from the liquor, tobacco or gambling industries. Many advanced countries also tax “sinful” liquor-related activity. These societies tax alcohol because it can cause social harm, such as drunk driving, as well as negative economic consequences because of health risks.

Finance Minister Yoon Jeung-hyun recently hinted that the government may introduce a so-called sin tax as “higher taxes on liquor and tobacco can boost government revenue and at the same time help public health by discouraging consumption of health-hazardous articles.” Taking the cue from top government officials, the state-run tax research institute plans to hold a hearing next week on an excise tax to incorporate taxing objects of widespread disapproval.

Sin tax could kill two birds with one stone, but why does it feel like the government is inspired more by generating revenue than a genuine concern for public health?

The writer is a deputy editor for economic affairs at the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Hoh Kui-seek [ksline@joongang.co.kr]
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