With nearly 45 percent of the male population being admitted smokers, it’s hard to walk a few steps down the sidewalk in South Korea without passing through a cloud of second-hand smoke. Second only to Greece in the 34 OECD nations, even Korean kids are smoking in record numbers, with 17 percent of teenage males lighting up after their daily classroom grind.
With elected officials paralyzed by the fear of raising cigarette taxes (currently the lowest in the OECD) on such a large slice of the electorate, the business community, oddly enough, is now leading the charge to cut smoking âin a big way.
How about missing out on that next big promotion at the office because you’re a smoker?
South Korean conglomerate the Woongjin Group not only requires new employees to sign a non-smoking pledge, but smoking caused some employees to get passed over for a recent round of pay raises in February.
The announcements were made prior to the promotion process, so there weren’t any complaints from those who didn’t get a promotion, a Woongjin Group spokeswoman told AFP.
To make sure that employees are abiding by their pledge, Woongjin conducts random hair and urine tests at irregular intervals to keep staff at their word.
South Korea’s largest employer, Samsung Electronics, is also cracking down on its nicotine nine-to-fivers. After a policy encouraging employees to sign up for non-smoking programs was met with mixed results, the firm is now considering tougher restrictions in line with Woongjin.
A company spokesman for the Device Solutions division, which makes up roughly 30,000 of Samsung’s 101,970 employees, says the electronics giant views its efforts as a dose of tough love, saying that Samsung considers employees as the company’s most valuable asset, and their health and well-being are a top priority.
That’s the love – so what about the tough?
Certain consequences for smokers are under consideration. They haven’t been finalized nor enforced, he said, adding that smoking could soon be a factor affecting promotion prospects.
The Government’s Dilemma
The central government is doing what it can while avoiding Korea’s third-rail of politics, the sin tax”. Few things more quickly turn the public against you here than raising taxes on Korean’s beloved cigarettes and alcohol. And the evidence shows that aside of potentially costing elected officials their jobs, it does little to curb smoking anyway.
The last time the government raised taxes on cigarettes was in 2004 by 354 won (30 cents) when 52 percent of the male population was smoking. The rate dropped a paltry seven points to 45 percent by 2007, but then increased the three subsequent years hitting 48.3 percent in 2010 before leveling off back at the current 45 percent.
For the government, South Korea’s smoking problem is unique, and highly troubling in one very significant way: with the world’s lowest birthrate it literally needs what few taxpayers it will have in the future to stay alive as long as possible.
In response to this serious concern, the Seoul city government last year banned smoking near bus stops and around schools as well as in parks and plazas. Offenders caught in those areas face a stiff 100,000-won fine (US$85) for lighting up.
Song Yo-sang, a city manager, says that the program has been successful.
“We caught 240 cases last year at main plazas and parks and this year; our 23 officers are going to random spots and catching about three to five smokers every day.”
That takes care of the smokers stupid enough to light up in restricted areas, but what about the thousands of others out there puffing it up?
Seoul plans to make 21 percent of its total area a non-smoking zone by 2014. It is also considering a blanket ban on smoking in all public areas except for scattered designated spots where smokers can light up.
Of course, not everyone welcomes the government and business taking a tough new stance.
Conducting (hair and urine) tests and constantly pressuring employees to quit smoking even after work clearly violates human rights, said Hong Sung-yong, director of the Korea Smokers Association.
The general public, and even smokers themselves, apparently don’t agree with Hong.
A survey by the Seoul government last year of 1,786 people found 69 percent agreed with tougher legislation. Among the respondents 1,092 identified themselves as smokers. (Oddly, if these numbers are correct, it shows 61 percent are smokers)
Regardless, Hong still feels that the country is being over zealous with its new tactics to curb smoking.
People shouldn’t make smokers look like barbarians when smoking is legal and we pay the rightful amount of taxes, he said. Prohibiting smoking is like pushing smokers off the brink and merely shows that they don’t care at all about smokers’ rights.
Smokers’ rights are of less concern than their wrongs to a government that must maintain a tax base as well as cut costs on treating cancer patients in a highly subsidized healthcare system.
Perhaps New Zealand has the answer. The government there has set a goal to reduce smoking to five percent of the population by 2020. And they are not afraid to tax smokers into healthy living.
Tax is about the most effective measure of reducing smoking and encouraging smokers to quit that we’ve got, says professor Richard Edwards of the Department of Public Health at University of Otago.
Though New Zealand recently announced a 40 percent hike in cigarette taxes over the next four years, some researches say it is not enough.
But how much?
A New Zealand government-sponsored study found that if the price of cigarettes was increased to US$40 a pack by 2025, combined with other ambitious policies, New Zealand would still fail in becoming smoke-free.
Who knows how researchers figure this stuff out, but their final conclusion, and the proposal they put forth, was that the government would have to institute a pricing plan to increase the cost of cigarettes to US$80 per pack by 2020 with prices “increasing exponentially after that.”
For smokers, this is pretty scary stuff, I suppose. This whole scenario is all the more frightening when considering that there is nothing like a good smoke after stringing up your local politicians following a good riot.
Korea’s Hidden Smokers by James Turnbull