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Smokers shun nicotine treatment programs in Korea

The Health Ministry’s nicotine treatment programs launched in February have failed to attract smokers despite the government’s antismoking measures including a price hike in cigarettes, a report showed on Monday.

In its effort to curb smoking, the Korean parliament last year approved an 80 percent increase in the price of cigarettes, from 2,500 won ($2.13) per pack to 4,500 won. Along with the new bill which took effect on Jan.1, the Health Ministry announced that it would support up to 70 percent of the cost of aid and medication for nicotine replacement therapy.

However, the report released by Rep. Rhee Mok-hee of the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy showed that the number of smokers who received the treatment dropped significantly from 39,718 in February to 18,334 in June.

Due to the programs’ unpopularity, the ministry and the National Health Insurance Service has so far spent only about 8 percent of the 93.4 billion won budget allocated for the service this year, according to Rep. Lee.

Some blame the complicated registration process to receive allowance for the medication and aid for nicotine replacement therapy -- such as nicotine gum and nicotine patches -- for the low use of the service. As the medication and aid are currently not covered by the national health insurance, those who wish to get support from the government are required to file a separate form online.

The Health Ministry initially planned to have the aid and medication covered by the state insurance starting October, but the plan was delayed partly because of the outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome which hit the country in late May. The government is to announce its revised plan regarding the insurance coverage later this week.

It is estimated that the government collected some additional 1.2 trillion won worth of tax money by raising the cigarette prices in the first half of this year. However, its next year’s budget for antismoking programs, including nicotine replacement therapy, has been cut by 16 billion won -- from this year’s 147.5 billion won to 131.5 billion won.

While the government has been insisting that the only reason it raised tobacco tax was because of the nation’s high smoking rate that poses a threat to the NHIS and the economy, the move has been criticized as a sly way to increase taxes particularly paid by the nation’s low-income population, whose smoking rate is higher than high-income earners.

“Only about half of all medical clinics (nationwide) are participating in antismoking programs and offering treatment options,” Rep. Lee said. “If the government is really determined to curb smoking, it has to come up with better ways to make sure more smokers can benefit from nicotine treatments.”

Meanwhile, the Health Ministry is establishing a think tank to research on the damage caused by tobacco next month. One of its main goals is to determine if local tobacco makers use additives, such as ammonia, sugar and cocoa beans, to make their products more addictive.

Sugar, for example, is known to generate aldehydes when pyrolyzed. The combination of aldehyde and nicotine is known to be more addictive than nicotine by itself.

The establishment of the think tank is one of the measures to support the NHIS’ high-profile, on-going suit against major tobacco firms -- including KT&G, British American Tobacco and Philip Morris -- seeking damages of 53.7 billion won for payouts over tobacco-related diseases especially lung cancer.

By Claire Lee(