By Kim Hyun-bin
Controversy over the safety of using electronic cigarettes has stirred in the country after the government released a report stating e-cigarettes contained five harmful substances that could cause cancer. Cigarette manufacturing company Philip Morris filed a lawsuit against the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety over the report.
Some 27 countries around the world including the United States, China and Hong Kong have some restrictions on e-cigarettes claiming they contain harmful substances. However, this is not the case in Korea where sales are through the roof, especially among young people.
According to the Ministry of Economy and Finance over 230 million packs of e-cigarettes were sold between January and September this year, making up over 9 percent of total cigarette sales. Only two million packs were sold in the second quarter of last year, but that number skyrocketed 44 fold in the second quarter of this year to 87 million.
Since Philip Morris launched its IQOS e-cigarettes in May 2017 it has sold over 32 million packs as of September this year.
But according to the government, a problem is that e-cigarettes are popular among teenagers and this popularity is spreading.
According to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's "Young Adults' Health Condition Report," the smoking rate among middle to high school students rose to 6.7 percent from 6.4 percent last year. Some 9.4 percent of male students smoked, down from 9.5 percent in 2017. However, the female smoking rate rose from 3.1 percent to 3.7 percent in the same period.
Among both genders, 43 percent smoked e-cigarettes ― more among male students than their female counterparts.
Experts say e-cigarettes are popular among teenagers as there is less of an odor compared to conventional cigarettes. Most of the students smoke discreetly as they fear getting caught by teachers and parents.
Also cigarettes are sold in most convenience stores, and the country's distribution of these has contributed to making Korea one of the top three markets for IQOS sales.
"The fact that they are easily bought in convenience stores, and there is no odor and harm done to other people are crucial factors as to why it they are so popular in Korea," an official from Philip Morris said.
Some want the government to take the initiative in banning ads in convenience stores targeting young people.
In its Framework Convention Alliance for Tobacco Control, the World Health Organization's (FCTC) recommends all member nations to ban cigarette advertisements in convenience stores. New Zealand, England, Australia, Canada and Thailand do this and even ban the display of cigarettes on shelves.
The U.S. government has also started a crackdown on youth smoking and slapped more restrictions on products called "Juul" a liquid e-cigarette from stores, as the government deemed it easier for underage smokers to buy these from convenience stores.
A recent Washington Post report citing U.S. government statistics stated that there was a rise of 77 percent of high school students who smoke electronic cigarettes since last year and 50 percent increase for middle school students.
The IQOS has not yet met requirements to be marketed in the U.S. and China. In May 2017, Philip Morris requested the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to approve its IQOS as a "less harmful cigarette," however, the approval has been postponed for over 18 months.
Philip Morris claims that its IQOS reduces the chances of death and contracting diseases. However, the FDA advisory committee said there was no scientific evidence proving this to be the case.
Fierce legal battle
The Ministry of Food and Drug Safety and the local unit of global tobacco giant Philip Morris is expected to face a fierce legal battle once a court hearing date is set.
Philip Morris filed a lawsuit after the ministry announced in June that five cancer-causing substances were found in heat-not-burn tobacco products sold here, with the level of tar exceeding that of conventional cigarettes.
The ministry announced the results after testing Philip Morris' IQOS, British American Tobacco's Glo and Lil from local cigarette maker KT&G Corp.
Philip Morris sued the ministry for declining to provide information on its research methods.