Bill goes right back to the smokers

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Bill goes right back to the smokers


Jun Won-tchack

Cigarettes and smokers somehow became the common enemy. Anyone slipping out to take a puff must put up with contemptuous remarks asking if he or she has not yet broken that obnoxious habit. Secondhand smoking is considered as dangerous to public safety as a murderous act. Despite the government’s heavy - and steady - reliance on smokers for tax revenues, many still want to see a reduction of smokers by raising the prices of cigarettes. If anyone wants to run for public office - either in the National Assembly or the presidency - the first thing he or she would have to do is quit smoking. Public buildings have turned into no-smoking zones. Smokers are pushed to a few corners in the street as if they are social delinquents.

There should be no defense for smoking. Everyone knows that smoking is bad and can kill you. It is responsible for hundreds of identifiable and non-identifiable diseases. But strictly speaking, what isn’t harmful in today’s world? Alcohol is just as damaging to your health. But cigarettes do not pose as big a danger to society. More than half of the murders, casualties, crimes and sexual assaults are caused by people under the influence of alcohol. Few commit crimes under tobacco hallucination. Alcohol abuse and addiction can cause liver-related diseases and cancer. But no one thinks of levying a health tax on alcohol consumption.

The National Health Insurance Service is mulling multibillion-dollar litigation against tobacco companies. It wants manufacturers to share part of the public cost to treat diseases caused by smoking. But at the end of the day, the bill goes right back to smokers. If tobacco companies lose, they would have to raise prices on their produces to balance their losses. The public insurer actually is filing damage charges against smokers.

Cigarettes are already levied with a special excise tax set aside for health promotion. Strictly speaking, the revenue should be spent on helping smokers’ health. Instead, the funds go to cover up for losses in the public health policy. It is wrong to demand more from smokers.

All human beings must go through different stages in life and eventually die. Quitting smoking could extend the average life expectancy, but it doesn’t assure good health for life. People fall ill and die. The reason and timing of death just differs among individuals. But smokers should not be entirely responsible for the cost to treat illnesses caused by their habit. They have already been paying a special excise tax for every puff. Under the same theory, producers of liquor and automobiles should be asked to take responsibility for every accident and disease caused in relation to their use.

The burden will end up in the laps of ordinary people. Korea Tobacco and Ginseng, a former government entity, and the government, which still allows the company a de facto monopoly in local production and distribution, would end up being hurt by the indemnity lawsuit. The litigation would have to go back at least 30 years to prove the harmful health effects of cigarette consumption, and the government would be held accountable because it was the owner of the company.

The lawsuit must be based on U.S. cases from the 1990s. When the States pursued litigation, the tobacco companies agreed to settle with the ones that rarely imposed sales taxes on cigarettes.

The state insurer has a lot of nerve if it thinks it can make smokers pay for their habit. Politicians could hardly come up with a better idea to kill votes. We have to question whether the agency really has the public interests at heart or whether it is that desperate to raise extra cash.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 8, Page 28

*The author is head of the Liberty Society and a lawyer.

By Jun Won-tchack
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