S Korea warns of heavy fines for cigarette hoarders after price hike

The South Korean government has warned of heavy fines for those who hoard cigarettes following its decision to hike tobacco prices. Seoul on Thursday (Sep 11) proposed a steep 80 per cent hike in cigarette prices to cut consumption in a nation with one of the world’s highest male smoking rates and some of the cheapest cigarettes in the world.

From early this week, sales of cigarettes have been on the rise as smokers waited for the government to announce plans for the hike in cigarette prices. Once the plan was announced, many started to stock up.

“We have sold about three to four more times (the number of cigarettes) than on average days. I guess psychologically when they heard it could rise, they thought it could rise from tomorrow. Maybe that’s why they are buying in cartons. Some said they will buy this for the last time and quit before the rise,” said convenience store owner Yang Byung-il.

Currently a packet of cigarettes costs about 2,500 won (US$2.40), but after the rise, it will cost 4,500 won (US$4.30). This would be the first price increase in 10 years, and the heftiest ever.

The proposal first needs to be approved by parliament, and if it passes, it goes into effect in January next year. But an approval is not guaranteed – the main opposition party said it would only empty the pockets of those in the low-income bracket.

The government predicts the increase would help cut cigarette consumption by 34 per cent, and analysts in favour of the rise say this will help tackle smoking among teenagers. “What is very important here is that it can help prevent smoking among youth in the early stages. Many studies show that if the price of cigarettes increase, then smokers in the low income bracket, who have one of the highest smoke rate, can see a drop,” said Choi Eun-jin, an analyst at the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs.

Just under half of adult males in South Korea smoke, compared to an average of 25.4 per cent in the 34 countries that are members of the OECD – thus the price hike was proposed to counter what has become the biggest threat to national health.

Those who hoard cigarettes from now on can be fined up to 50 million won (US$48,000). Apart from the price hike, the government has suggested banning cigarette advertisements in convenience stores and making graphic warning labels on the cigarette packs mandatory.

By Korea Bureau Chief Lim Yun Suk

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