SEOUL, Nov. 17 (Korea Bizwire) — Lee Tae-kyung, a 37-year-old office worker who has been smoking for 15 years, recently switched to an e-cigarette that heats tobacco without burning.
“This is said to be less harmful than traditional cigarettes,” Lee said, as he took a puff on his pen-shaped contraption at a designated smoking zone in Gwanghwamun, central Seoul.
“Frankly speaking, I switched to an e-cigarette to try to quit smoking, but I smoke this more frequently these days because it doesn’t smell too strong,” Lee grinned.
Big manufacturers that have spent billions of dollars in marketing so-called “smoke-free” tobacco products around the world, have claimed that e-cigarettes are less harmful than conventional cigarettes.
However, there is little scientific evidence that e-cigarettes may reduce health risks and most e-cigarettes contain nicotine that is addictive and toxic, scientists say.
Despite controversy over health risks, competition is set to intensify in South Korea’s e-cigarette market after KT&G Corp., the nation’s tobacco company, began selling a vaping product named “lil” this month.
South Korea’s market for e-cigarettes has been dominated by two multinational tobacco giants — Philip Morris International and BAT.
According to industry estimates, e-cigarettes accounted for about 3 percent of the nation’s total tobacco market during the third-quarter of this year, but vaping products were rapidly catching up.
The estimates showed that Philip Morris International’s “IQOS” e-cigarette accounted for about 6 percent of total tobacco sales in South Korea in November.
Some analysts said e-cigarettes help expand the overall tobacco market.
Hong Se-jong, an analyst at Shinhan Investment Corp., said sales of tobacco products in South Korea are expected to rise 0.7 percent next year from this year.
“Thanks to e-cigarettes, the overall tobacco market is growing,” Hong said, citing a market trend in Japan, where IQOS accounted for about 12 percent of its tobacco market.
Smoking rates were also on the rise in South Korea, in spite of the government’s active anti-smoking campaigns, including a sharp rise in tobacco prices in 2014.
Data from the nation’s health ministry shows that 23.9 percent of South Korean people aged above 19 smoked as of 2016, up 1.3 percentage points from a year earlier.
South Korea is also one of most nicotine-addicted nations among Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) member states.
According to a 2014 survey by the OECD, 36.6 percent of South Korean men smoked, marking the second-highest smoking rates among OECD members after Turkey.
Earlier this month, South Korea’s National Assembly approved a bill to raise taxes on vaping products as sales of e-cigarettes gain steam.
The bill calls for a consumption tax for vaping products to rise 529 won from the current 126 won.
Currently, Phillip Morris’ IQOS is sold at 4,300 won per pack in South Korea. Ordinary cigarettes are sold at 4,500 won for a pack.
Although prices of vaping products are expected to rise, it will unlikely pose a significant impact on sales of e-cigarettes, some analysts said.
Lee Kyung-shin, an analyst at Hi Investment & Securities, said the pace of sales growth of IQOS in South Korea is faster than that of Japan.
“Despite the tax hike, efforts by the three makers to expand their sales of e-cigarettes will be stepped up for the time being,” Lee said.
While tobacco makers are betting on high-margin vaping products to offset a decline in sales of traditional cigarettes, critics say long-term research is needed to assess their health risks.
Seo Hong-gwan, head of the Korean Association on Smoking or Health, an anti-smoking civic group, and a professor at the National Cancer Center, said vaping products may be less harmful, but they are not alternatives to traditional cigarettes.
Seo said vaping products should be taxed as combustible cigarettes because tobacco taxes are not set by the levels of tar and nicotine content.