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Smoking in Korea

Smoking in Korea

In the 1990’s, smokers could light up anywhere in Korea and the rate of men smoking was in the neighbourhood of 70%.  South Korea has had one of the highest numbers of male smokers in the world and one of the lowest of female smokers. Korean media reported the smoking rates in 2009 by gender as being between 4% and 7% for women over 19 y-o-a and between 44% and 57% for men. The average percentage of male smokers in OECD countries (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) is reportedly just under 25%.

There have been (and continues to be to some extent) strong taboos against women smoking – unless they are elderly. There are some areas where women feel comfortable smoking in the open – around university campuses, some areas with a high foreigner presence such Seoul's Itaewon area, clubs, etc., but those are still somewhat limited. In recent years, a growing number of women have chosen to start smoking openly as a gesture of affirmative action, as a way of declaring their right to equality.

Because so many women may still be smoking in secret, it's probable that the percentage of female smokers is higher than reported. Many women’s washroom stalls have an ashtray, which is where many young women do their smoking. That said, many venues are now prohibiting smoking in public washrooms or anywhere inside public buildings.

A number of factors contribute to the high smoking rate of Korean men. One of these has been the low price of cigarettes - one of the lowest prices among OECD countries.  Also, most men, if they hadn’t already started, began smoking during their mandatory military service. At one time, cigarettes were given to conscripted solders for free as part of their 'pay'. And even though cigarettes may no longer be free, the military culture may have encouraged smoking in a variety of ways – peer pressure, increase work breaks for smokers, etc.

In the past decade, the country has been undergoing major changes in its tolerance of smoking. The price of cigarettes nearly doubled in January 2015, warnings on packages are getting bigger and more graphic, some employers, including the military, are offering cessation programs to their people, new employees in a few companies are required to sign a non-smoking pledge, while on both the local and national levels, anti-smoking bans are being introduced.  (Scroll below for more information on smoking bans).

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Last Updated on 2016-05-08

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