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Air Force antismoking policy triggers dispute

The Air Force plans to ban pilots and cadets who smoke from flying and designate most units as cigarette-free zones beginning next month, triggering a controversy over the possible violation of airmen’s basic rights.

The unprecedented measures come under Air Force Chief of Staff Sung Il-hwan’s initiatives to improve the well-being of the air force staff. Since taking office in April last year, he has spearheaded an antismoking campaign, for which he won a health minister’s citation last month.

Should nicotine be found in a pilot’s body during a regular checkup, he or she would be excluded from flight missions and put in an antismoking program until he or she quit smoking, the Air Force said Wednesday.

Aware of the possibility that the program could violate smokers’ rights, the Air Force has decided to permit a limited number of smoking zones, which will be farther than 50 meters away from any building.

“There are clearly limits if we just keep chanting antismoking slogans and rely on individuals’ will,” said Col. Kang Ho-hyung in charge of the Air Force’s health division. “There has been a growing consensus over the policy and an increasing number of airmen are participating in it.”

But critics argue such a forcible measure would contravene a smoker’s right to freedom.

“Any kind of authority using its powers to intervene in a smoker’s decision is a clear violation of freedom,” an office worker in Seoul said, declining to be named.

“Smoking is a personal choice, and as long as smoking takes place in an environment where non-smokers are not exposed to second-hand smoke, no harm comes to those who choose not to smoke.”

Under the motto that top-level combat readiness comes from healthy troops, the Air Force seeks to reduce the smoking rate of enlisted troops to 20 percent by 2015 from the current 33 percent.

To improve airmen’s health, Air Force chief Sung has also directed his units not to use powdered seasonings and minimize the use of sodium in making food.

By Song Sang-ho (