Feature: Korea’s Hidden Smokers


Like it or loathe it, you just can’t ignore all the smoking in Korea.

If you’re a smoker yourself, chances are that you do so much more often than back home. Or, if you’re sensitive to it, ultimately it may even drive you out of the country.

For something so ubiquitous though, it’s amazing how much misinformation about it there is out there. Especially on how many Korean women smoke.

Take a typical news story. Most likely, it will open with a remark about the world’s highest male smoking rate. A July 2010 Busan Metro article, for example, began by mentioning that the Ministry of Health and Welfare found that 42.6% of Korean men smoked in the first half of that year, against an average of 28.4% for the OECD. Even though the article itself was about a small decrease.

In comparison, the reported rate for women was 2.8%, little changed in five years. So, you can understand why that barely got a mention, and why Korea’s Ministry of Health and Welfare has likewise concentrated its efforts on men. After all, the male smoking rate was as high as 79% back in 1980.

But that focus is allowing a looming health crisis to go unnoticed. For the reality is that more young Korean women are smoking than ever before -– almost as many as 1 in 5, according to estimates by Gallup Korea in 2007. Why the huge disparity with official figures?

Partially, it’s because despite everything you’ve read above, actually it’s really quite misleading and unhelpful to talk in terms of a male or female smoking rate, as rates within each gender can vary wildly depending on age, occupation, marital status, and region. This makes the collection of accurate statistics difficult, and doesn’t exactly lend itself to snappy headlines.


Instead, the answer lies in the very interesting fact that that Gallup Korea survey also found that an overwhelming 83.4% of Koreans disapproved of women smoking. Or, in short, the statistics are plagued by chronic under-reporting.

Perhaps, this is less of a magic bullet explanation than it may sound -– wherever they’re from, even most smokers themselves may disapprove of women (and men) smoking, despite their own indulgences. And nobody likes to admit doing something unhealthy. However, there probably aren’t many countries where people can still express their disapproval by slapping female smokers in the face, as a Korea Times reader witnessed as recently as March 2010.

Of course, that would be an extreme case, but it’s not at all difficult to find evidence of how powerful the stigma against women smoking in Korea is -– just ask any close Korean friends. Indeed, it’s so strong that even expat women are often affected too (especially those outside of Seoul), despite Koreans usually letting foreigners off the hook for many of the cultural faux pas they make.

For something more tangible, consider that the 1989 National Health Promotion Law Enforcement Ordinance bans all tobacco advertising, marketing and sponsorship aimed at women and children. Granted, it had noble intentions, but still: it’s a very revealing glimpse at underlying attitudes, in a No dogs or Chinese allowed sense.

What’s the source of those attitudes? One tempting explanation was offered back in March 1980 by anthropologist C. Paul Dredge in the Korea Journal, who wrote of a Joseon Dynasty king who allegedly so hated the smell of smoke on the breaths of his officials and courtiers that he forbade smoking in the presence of one’s social superiors, an edict that soon found a natural niche in the Korean ideology of Neo-Confucianism that placed females firmly at the bottom.

Rooted in the magic C-word, with which seemingly everything is explained with in Korea, you can be forgiven for nodding along to that. Alas, Dredge then goes on to point out that this is rubbish, just a retroactive rationalization of a preexisting social practice.

Instead, he argues that smoking is a way of showing status and hierarchy. Either because it’s a form of pleasure, to be denied to inferiors in one’s presence, or because it (literally) alters the atmosphere in the room to the detriment of the inferior, much like a U.S. Marine Commanding Officer can draw to within two inches of a private’s face and yell reprimands at him, whereas the private must salute at a distance of six feet and keep at least arm’s length when speaking to his commander.

Something to consider next time your Korean boss lights up in front of everyone, while you and everyone else have to use the smoking room. And, why coffee shops are so much more popular among young Korean women than men, for over 20 years the older Korean-style rooms really being the only places they could light up. Which as it turns out, they are doing in droves, despite what you may read in the papers.

James Turnbull’s popular blog, The Grand Narrative, discusses Korean sociology through gender, advertising, and popular culture, and has become one of the leading Internet sources on those topics, with mentions in Time MagazineThe Washington Post and Jezebel.




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