Public health should come first

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Public health should come first

Former Strategy and Finance Minister Bahk Jae-wan, when asked about the necessity of raising the tax on cigarettes during legislative questioning, answered that the time has come to do so. But I never imagined it would be so difficult to do so, even as I proposed the bill that would bump tobacco taxes. Nevertheless, I firmly believe that it must be done.

It’s widely known that smoking causes a range of deadly health hazards including cancer, heart attacks and strokes. Smoking-related deaths reach 30,000 a year, six times more than traffic accident fatalities. Direct and indirect damages from smoking are estimated to amount to 10 trillion won a year as of 2012.

During the country’s poor days, the government sold tobacco products through a state monopoly to raise fiscal revenue. It supplied hazardous materials to citizens to help run the government and the country. That’s why many blame the government for the proliferation of smoking. The past government role strengthens the voice of opposition to a hike in the cigarette tax.

Cigarette prices have been stable since they were raised 500 won ($0.45) a pack in 2004. In Korea, cigarettes are the cheapest among member nations of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development. As result, the country has the largest number of male smokers over 15 years of age in the OECD. Cheap prices encourage smoking.

Smokers naturally oppose a price hike, but empirical studies and cases in advanced countries prove that smoking can be stopped or discouraged when prices go up. After steep duty increases, the teenage smoking rate in the United States, which reached 36 percent in 1995, came down to 25 percent by 2001. After a similar move, Canada saw its teenage smoking rate sharply fall to 16 percent from 47 percent between 1971 and 1991.

Higher prices are most effective in curbing smoking rates among the youth, who must be responsible for our future. Young smokers are three times more sensitive to cigarette prices. It is essential to lower youth smoking as the habit tends to continue into adulthood when started at a young age.

Smokers become immune to higher prices and can’t kick the habit if tobacco costs go up incrementally and continuously. The move only helps fatten the fiscal revenues of tobacco manufacturers and retailers. One study claims that smokers can think about quitting when prices are hiked 2,000 won a pack, which is why the legislature proposed that amount for the rise.

Many argue that a price hike would hit low-income smokers the hardest. They criticize legislators and the government for coldheartedness toward smokers who turn to cigarettes for a moment’s relief. But a steep rise in prices can induce many to quit smoking, which would be money-saving as well as life-saving in the long run.

But raising prices can’t solve all the problems. At the same time, I proposed a legislative revision to require cigarette products to carry a graphic picture of lungs damaged by heavy smoking on the pack and also a ban on misleading words like “mild.” I also proposed including quitting treatments in public health coverage by acknowledging smoking as a serious health risk.

Smokers’ rights have to be respected. But public health should come first. We must drastically raise cigarette prices to effectively contain smoking. Our children, parents, teachers, homemakers’ associations and civilian groups all should join forces to stage a nationwide campaign.

By Kim Jae-won, The author is a representative of the Saenuri Party.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff

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