Caught between the nearly-doubled price of cigarettes and toughened smoking-related regulations, an increasing number of smokers are changing their smoking habits by cutting back or opting for electronic cigarettes.
The Korean parliament in September agreed to raise retail prices of cigarette packs to 4,500 won ($4.07), up from 2,500 won. The measure was put into effect on New Year’s Day, and its impact was immediate and resounding.
As of Sunday, corner stores across Korea have started selling individual cigarettes, a trend that all but died out over the past few decades.
Since cigarettes cost 300 won a piece and a pack of 20 costs 4,500 won, it is naturally cheaper to buy a packet. But local store owners said more customers were reluctant to buy a whole packet, as they are trying to cut back in the face of the tobacco price hike.
A corner store in Sillim-dong, Seoul, is seen Sunday selling individual cigarettes. (Yonhap)
Industry sources said that tobacco sales on Jan. 1 nearly halved compared to the same day last year, with local retail giant Lotte Mart reportedly seeing a 49 percent drop in sales.
Observers are saying the drastic drop in sales was partly due to hoarding that was rampant ahead of the price hike, but the government projects the drop in sales is likely to continue throughout the year.
The Finance Ministry said Koreans are expected to consume 2.8 billion packs of cigarettes for this year, which is 34 percent less than 4.3 billion last year.
The government had claimed that raising cigarette prices was part of its effort to lower the country’s smoking rate. Following the parliamentary agreement on tobacco prices, the Health Ministry said last month it was pushing to expand smoke-free zones and anyone caught smoking inside a restaurant would be slapped with a 100,000 won fine.
The string of government measures seem to have made it tougher to be a smoker in Korea, claimed government officials. According to the Korea Health Promotion Foundation, the number of people who registered themselves at state-run anti-smoking clinics from September to November was 46 percent higher than during the same period in 2013. Officials there said this was the direct influence of the government’s price hike.
According to the Health Ministry, the smoking rate for male adults dropped from 47.1 percent in 2004 to 43.9 percent in 2005 after the government raised the cigarette prices from 2,000 won a pack to 2,500 won. The officials aim to ultimately drop the adult male smoking rate ― which stands at 42.5 percent as of 2013 ― to 29 percent by 2020.
To counter this, some smokers are turning to electronic cigarettes, despite the high price and questions over health risks.
Online shopping mall G-market said their e-cigarette sales jumped exponentially since the government raised cigarette prices; especially from Dec. 1 to Dec. 22 when sales soared sixteenfold.
By Yoon Min-sik (firstname.lastname@example.org