SEOUL, Nov. 3 (Korea Bizwire) – South Korea is a smoker’s paradise no more, as the government has in recent years been stacking one anti-smoking regulation on top of another. Its latest move: a bill revising the nation’s health law, revisions that among others will establish being caught smoking in an anti-smoking apartment complex a fineable offense.
The groundwork for the increased crackdown on smoking was first laid in 2010, when the central government armed regional authorities with the autonomy to designate non-smoking areas and levy fines. Two years later, the central government took up the cause, decreeing all public facilities to be non-smoking areas. Finally, in 2014, the government went on the offensive through the Ministry of Health and Welfare’s (MHW) ultimately successful motion to raise cigarettes prices by a whopping 2,000 won (in effect since 2015).
Citing statistics from the OECD, namely that 49 percent of all South Korean men of legal age were smokers, the MHW at the time supported its intent to price smokers out of their habits, adding, “135 Koreans every day and 50,000 every year die from smoking.”
After a price hike equating to an additional 500 won was instituted in 2005, the 2015 cost adjustment was both the second such measure and the largest raise ordered, resulting in the current price of 4,500 won per pack. This, coupled with the ever expanding boundaries of non-smoking areas absorbing restaurants, major city streets and subway entrances, has effectively converted vast swathes of the outdoors into, at least in theory, smoke-free zones.
The government has now come knocking on smokers’ doors. Since last September, a provision granting city districts, counties, and cities legal authority to declare an apartment building’s elevators, stairwells and underground parking lots as non-smoking areas has been in effect. For the decision to be made, a minimum two-thirds of the residents must agree, upon which the collective can request its respective level of government to officially recognize the apartment complex’s as a non-smoking area.
Come November 3, smoking in these select publicly accessible areas of non-smoking apartments will be penalized with a 50,000 won fine. The fine was initially set at 100,000 won, on par with the fees payable when caught smoking in a public facility, but the Ministry of Government Legislation struck it down, halving the penalty to 50,000 won on the grounds of “the need to take into consideration autonomous rule”.
The announcement of the implementation of the financial penalty was met with skepticism from both smokers and non-smokers alike; in particular, questions of “Who will enforce this?” were raised. The argument goes that confronting their neighbors is bound to create conflict and discord within the residential community, naturally giving rise to a tendency to avoid potential tensions by turning a blind eye to any smoking violations.
Lack of effective enforcement being a problem is borne out by municipal government data which revealed that regional offices employed as few as one staff member devoted to policing non-smoking areas. With a limited budget that constrains additional hiring, the offices turn to volunteers, but the response has been lukewarm. Enforcement is difficult even in cases where patrol staff are available and on site, as they can be stonewalled by smokers who simply refuse to turn over identification, making follow up measures impossible. This explains the inconsistency between the number of smokers spotted and the smokers fined in health center databases across the country; the former is anywhere from 20,000 to 30,000, while the latter does not exceed single digits.
Despite enforcement struggling to catch up, lawmakers continue to surge ahead. In exactly one month, on December 3, smoking restrictions will be placed on pool parlors and screen golf establishments, which are heavily patronized by South Korean men. These businesses will be required to ban all smoking on the premises or set aside, and in most cases, build smoking booths. Failure to do so will result in a 1.7 million won fine, with the penalties increasing to 3.3 million won and 5 million for multiple offenses. Of course, whether the law will be properly enforced remains the question.
Kevin Lee (firstname.lastname@example.org)