The National Assembly's Legislation and Judiciary Committee will hold a plenary session on Monday to discuss a bill to manage the harmful effects of tobacco. Currently, cigarette manufacturers disclose only a limited number of ingredients on cigarette packages at their own risk, but the bill suggests in the future, the Health and Welfare Ministry and the Food and Drug Safety Ministry will disclose a wide range of information once the ingredients and contents of cigarettes are tested by an inspection agency designated by the Food and Drug Safety Ministry, and the results are submitted. It will be interesting to see if the Act on Disclosure of Tobacco Hazardous Ingredients, which has been pending for 11 years, will clear the Judiciary Committee this time to reach the plenary session.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there are more than 4,000 harmful chemicals in cigarettes and at least 70 carcinogens, but only eight are disclosed by tobacco companies on cigarette packs in Korea. Of these carcinogens, the amounts are disclosed for only two: nicotine and tar. Compared to more than 100 countries around the world, including the U.S. and the European Union, where the WHO's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control requires mandatory disclosure of ingredients in all cigarettes, including e-cigarettes, the Korean government's control of harmful tobacco substances is very weak at best. Cigarette manufacturers disclose the types and contents of harmful ingredients in detail on their products overseas but hide those ingredients on their Korean websites. Korean smokers are the only ones who don't know what their cigarettes contain.
Looking back at the debate process surrounding the enactment of the Act on Disclosure of Tobacco Hazardous Ingredients, we cannot but blame the government and the National Assembly for serious dereliction of duty in protecting the public's health, considering their obligations to inform people of the harmful effects of tobacco. Even after ratifying the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control in 2005, the National Assembly proposed the law in 2013, but failed to pass the parliamentary committee as the Health and Welfare Ministry and the Economy and Finance Ministry argued over who would manage the law. As government ministries fought for regulatory authority and the National Assembly used this as an excuse to delay legislation, rumors have said that tobacco companies lobbied for it.
According to government data, more than 58,000 people died from smoking in Korea in 2019, and the medical expenses and socioeconomic costs due to lost productivity caused by premature death were estimated to be more than 12 trillion won (about 9 billion U.S. dollars). We live in a world where the nutritional information and ingredients of processed foods we eat and drink daily, as well as the ingredients of dozens of cosmetics, are fully disclosed. Now that the Economy and Finance Ministry has given up and the Health and Welfare Ministry's bill is on the table, ruling and opposition lawmakers should pass the law in the plenary session this month. With the passage of the law, the government should prepare a more effective anti-smoking policy by systematically managing the harmful ingredients in cigarettes and ensuring the public's right to know and choose.