Time for bolder policies to curb smoking rate
The government's move to repackage cigarettes with graphic images showing the harmful effects of smoking is a step in the right direction to curb the highest smoking rate among OECD countries.
Korea has belatedly joined the global trend of more than 80 countries, including Canada and the European Union, to adopt pictorial warnings on cigarette packs. A severely diseased lung and other distasteful images were among the 10 pictorial warnings unveiled by the Ministry of Health and Welfare last week. The images must occupy more than 30 percent of the front and back of cigarette packaging starting from Dec. 23.
The effectiveness of pictorial warnings to discourage people from smoking has been proven in countries such as Canada, where the warnings were adopted in 2001. Just five years after Canada adopted the warnings, the smoking rate dropped to 18 percent from 24 percent.
The graphic warnings have prompted a dispute among anti-smoking groups who welcome the move, and the tobacco industry, which says that the warnings infringe on various rights of manufacturers, retailers and smokers.
These disputes should not deter the government from pursuing bolder initiatives to curb the nation's smoking rate. They government should try to make the pictorial warnings as effective as possible before it finalizes the plan in June. Many experts say the graphic images should take up the upper part of the package, not the bottom because it is likely that the images will be covered by the stands, weakening the effectiveness.
Most countries that have adopted the pictorial warnings have placed them in the upper part of the cigarette pack so that they will be clearly visible. The images should also take up a larger portion of the pack. In Canada, they take up 75 percent and in Australia they take up as much as 95 percent.
Korea's smoking rate among male adults is 43.1 percent, which is the highest among OECD countries. The government is aiming to bring this down to 29 percent by 2020. For this, there is much room for improvement in the nation's backward anti-smoking policy. Previous measures such as last year's price hike did not have a lasting effect.
Citing the need to discourage smoking, the government raised taxes on cigarettes by 2,000 won ($1.62), starting in January 2015, raising the price to 4,500 won per pack. Recent data showed that slightly more than one year afterwards, the move to quit smoking has died down, with much fewer people joining anti-smoking clinics operated by public health centers. Even with the price hike, while considered "massive" by the average Korean smoker, cigarettes are still much cheaper here than in more advanced countries.
The reality is that cigarettes are still too available in Korea. Smoking is more than a matter of personal choice when considering the hazards of passive smoking, which has been known to cause not only lung cancer but heart attacks, asthma and many more diseases, as well as other environmental and social impacts.
Stronger measures to lessen the availability of cigarettes should be implemented, such as an additional price hike and raising the legal age for purchasing and using tobacco products. In addition, expanding rules to ban smoking in public places and other ways to discourage smoking should be promoted with the participation of various sectors of Korean society.