Our smokes are too cheap

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Our smokes are too cheap

The Ministry of Health and Welfare plans to raise the average price of a pack of local cigarettes from 2,500 won ($2.45) to 4,500 won. It aims to apply the new price next year after revising relevant laws at the National Assembly this year. The ministry expects the price hike to help lower our alarmingly high smoking rate to the 20 percent range from a current 44 percent.

Korean tobacco prices are much lower than in other developed countries. Due to a 10-year price cap after a 500 won increase in 2004, the local cigarette price has been fixed at 2,500 won - compared to the OECD average of 7,000 won. Korea’s smoking rate is nearly two times higher than the rate in other advanced economies. In Norway and Australia, where a pack of cigarettes is sold for more than 16,000 won, smoking rates are only 28 percent and 21 percent, respectively.

The World Health Organization and other experts at home and abroad contend that a big price hike is the most effective way to curb smoking. The proposal by Minister of Health and Welfare Moon Hyung-pyo for the cigarette price to be upped to 4,500 won - an 80 percent increase - is reasonable. The new price will have a particular impact on the younger generation.

Some experts wanted a price hike of 500 won or 1,000 won, or a 2,000 won hike over time. But that will lessen the desired effect of a price hike, and will only benefit tobacco companies. In 2004, the government was determined to raise the price by 1,000 won by splitting the increase into two, but it ended up with a 500 won increase. If the government lifts the price, it can get an additional tax revenue of nearly 3 trillion won. Of the sum, the health and welfare ministry’s share must be spent on improving smokers’ health or raising awareness about health risks.

Also, the government needs to consider the idea of putting graphic depictions of smoking’s effects such as lung cancer or gum disease on the cover of cigarette packs. Seventy countries around the world have introduced such policies over the last decade. The health authorities, too, must regulate smoking scenes in movies, considering the harmful inspiration celebrity actors and actresses may give to young audiences.

Political circles must stop their knee-jerk opposition to cigarette price hikes on the grounds of an increased tax burden for the poorer class. The fact is that a higher smoking rate leads to more diseases, including lung cancer. Lawmakers must pass the changes, because otherwise the underprivileged will pay more for medical treatments.

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