The Gender Politics of Smoking in South Korea: Part 4

Estimated reading time: 12 minutes. Source: cutilove.

“Smoking Among Men Drops to Record Low” reads a recent headline in The Chosunilbo, with only 39.6% of Korean men over 19 now doing so: a drop of 3.5% from a year earlier, and of 17.1% from 2003. Which is something to be celebrated for sure, but, strangely, the even more amazing news that almost half of women smokers also quit last year barely gets a mention. Why not?

Of course, it may just be an oversight. But there is some context to consider: overemphasizing reductions in the male smoking rate is intrinsic to the Ministry of Health and Welfare’s (보건복지부) tobacco control policies for instance, and it also has a long track record of exaggerating its successes. Possibly then, the report just reflects the Ministry’s own emphases in its press release.

Alternatively, readers too may not have been interested in a paltry reduction of 4% to 2.2%. The rate has always been low, they may have said. And with a 2007 Gallup Korea study finding that 83.4% of Koreans thought that women shouldn’t smoke too, with some even slapping them in the street if they do, then apparently the consensus is that so it should be too.

But given that background, then as you’d expect there is chronic under-reporting of smoking by women, best estimates of their real numbers being closer to 20%. Add the absence of any dramatic social or economic changes to prompt women to give up the habit in droves in just the past year too, then it’s difficult not to conclude that these latest figures are essentially meaningless.

Was a line or two to that effect really too much to expect from a newspaper?

Source: Naver Movies.

But I’ve already discussed both statistical issues and taboos against women smoking in great depth in Parts One, Two, and Three (and in a newsflash), and, with the benefit of *cough* 6 months’ hindsight (sorry), then there’s little more to add on those topics really. Instead, let me continue this series by looking at the ways in which transnational tobacco companies (TTCs) have successfully targeted Korean women ever since the cigarette market was liberalized in the late-1980s, despite legislation specifically designed to prevent that. Fortunately, the journal article I’ll be relying on – Kelley Lee, Carrie Carpenter, Chaitanya Challa, Sungkyu Lee, Gregory N Connolly, and Howard K Koh in “The strategic targeting of females by transnational tobacco companies in South Korea following trade liberalisation”, Globalization and Health 2009, Volume 5, Issue 2 – is freely available for online-viewing or as a PDF download, and is short and very readable, so I’ll just summarize the main points here.

First, some historical context: this is not the first time tobacco companies have encountered strong taboos against women smoking, with attitudes towards it in the U.S. in the 1920s sounding not unlike those of Korea today (in 1922, a woman was even arrested for smoking on the street). The solution was to get women to associate smoking with equality and female emancipation, as ably described in the following segment of The Century of the Self (2009):

If that gives you a taste for watching the full documentary, as I suspect it might, then see here for links to all episodes. If you’d rather just read an explanation though, then let me refer you to towards the end of this short interview of producer, writer, and director Adam Curtis. Or for something even shorter, then this alternative explanation also gives the gist:

Edward Bernays, the man who supposedly invented most modern PR techniques, in the 1920s convinced women to start smoking. Supposedly at the time smoking was considered gross and basically for men only so very few women smoked. The show claims he hired a bunch of women to march in the New York Thanksgiving Day Parade (a big yearly parade) and had them put a pack of cigarettes in their garters. On cue they were all to lift their dresses and light one up. He then told the press to come to the parade because there was going to be a protest for women’s equality. On cue the women light up, the press took photos and reported lighting up a cigarette as the symbol for women’s equality and like over night it was now seen as if you supported equality for women you should be smoking.

And internal TTC documents demonstrate that that same logic has also been applied to emerging markets across Asia since the early-1990s. Focusing more specifically on Korea here though, crucial is the 1989 National Health Promotion Law Enforcement Ordinance, which bans all tobacco advertising, marketing and sponsorship aimed at women and children (yes really, and for more on this enduring paternalistic attitude, see Part 1). This has been circumvented by TTCs in 4 main ways:

Source: Naver Movies

First, if not blatantly targeted at them, then advertising of each cigarette brand remains permitted up to 60 times a year in print media, and “tobacco companies are also allowed to sponsor social, cultural, music, and sporting events (other than events for women and children) using company names but not product names” (pp. 4-5). Consequently, sometimes TTCs have simply used ostensibly “gender-neutral” advertisements to target women, in the mid-1990s the former Brown & Williamson promoting the Finesse brand (sold as Capri outside of Korea) by using romantic imagery of couples for instance.

Next, in the 1990s at least there was a focus on retail distribution in venues which tended to be frequented by young women, such as coffee shops, restaurants, event lunches, bars, nightclubs, and so on. Especially the first, and which is worth expanding on here, as it might sound strange in an era of ubiquitous, smoke-free, multinational chain-stores. But then it wasn’t so long ago that they were the place to hang out for young people, a rare oasis from school, work, and/or extended families living under the one, cramped roof. As described in Yogong: Factory Girl for instance (published in 1988, but really about the 1970s):

Often [18 year-old Sun-hi] goes to the home of a friend from her work. Three or four girls, all from the same factory, may walk together, stopping in at a tea room (다방/dabang) for coffee or cola and to listen to music. Or, if they have less money, they may stop to buy a packaged ice cream confection at the local grocer’s. But whether on the street corner or at the tea room, where, for the price of a drink, one may sit without interruption, there is ample opportunity to see and be seen by boys of the same age. (p. 140)

And in particular, in The Joongang Daily (image sourced from article)”

In the 1970s, cafes…became more commercialized, and owners sought to sell an image rather than a drink. “The dabang was a place for socializing. People didn’t care much about the taste of coffee ― and it tasted terrible,” said Mr. Lee.

The hugely popular “music dabangs” were associated with long hair, blue jeans and folk guitarists. Dabang deejays became the idols of teenage girls. When that trend faded, “ticket dabangs” emerged, where sexy hostesses would do more than just pour your coffee.

After half a century of popularity, dabangs started giving way to modern and chic cafes in the 1980s. Specialty cafes such as Jardin and Waltz House ― imitations of Japanese versions of European style cafes ― spread everywhere. This type of cafe, however, had its limits. Despite expensive interiors and espresso machines, the coffee quality was still poor. “Neither cafe owners nor coffee drinkers knew what a cup of good coffee tasted like,” said Mr. Lee.

But in the 1990s, the mantle of coolness suddenly passed away from dabangs:

During my first week in Korea back in 1990, I started going to a small coffeehouse Jardin, just down the street from the language institute where I taught. It was one of these upscale gourmet-type coffeehouses that, according to an article I had read in one of the English-language newspapers, had suddenly started springing up everywhere in the city….Now almost over night, people could choose a variety of coffee concoctions and flocked to these coffeehouses.

This was a big change in the early 90s in Korea. It might have seemed subtle to some people who just wanted to enjoy their coffee, but what was really happening was a break from tradition.

Young Koreans wanted something new and modern. They did not want to hang out in the dank, dark dabangs that were more often than not frequented by middle-aged Korean men and women. Likewise, the tea houses and cafés their parents had gone to in the 70s and 80s were not hip enough for the urban chic beginning to appear.

And as for what happened after 1999, when the first Starbucks opened, then I recommend this recent article in 10 Magazine. But then *cough* this post is actually about gender and smoking rather than coffee per se, so let me just highlight two aspects of that most recent development here.

First, that these new, Western establishments have been more heavily patronized by women than men, as explained by Gord Sellar back in 2008 (and recently expanded upon by him here):

The interesting thing to look at is the emergent young women’s consumer society. I’ve been trawling about online, trying to piece together the story of the Soybean Paste Girl archetype (or, dwenjang nyeo{된장녀}, as she’s called in Korean), and what I’ve found is that almost all of the criticism of this young woman is focused on her female-consumerism. That is: when she buys a coffee from Starbucks for W4,000 (usually about $4, though the won is doing badly these days) coffee, she gets criticized, but when a young man of the same age consumes two bottles of eminently acceptable (read: Korean) soju, nobody thinks to criticize it. The soju, that’s normal, but the Starbucks… that’s all foreign, all “expensive,” and more disturbingly, it’s “girly.” Girls can go there and have fun without men. (Which is doubly threatening to young men who frustratedly already see such women as “out of their league.”) As in, you see women in Starbucks with women, you see women in Starbucks with men. You almost never see men in Starbucks with men. Starbucks, like Gucci and Prada and Luis Vuitton before it, and like Outback and other “Western” restaurants since, are distinctly of appeal to women.

Sources: left, right.

And second, that women are puffing away in droves in them, as I’m no Picasso explained in a comment on Part 3:

It would be interesting to look into the correlation between the development of coffee shop culture in Korean and that of the growth rate of female smokers. I’ve seen maybe five women smoking on the street in my nearly two years in Korea, and at least three of those were ducked into telephone booths or alleys. However. When I sit in the smoking rooms of cafes (which I do quite often), they are often (particularly in the afternoon, when the coffee shops are full almost exclusively of women, with no male audience around to balk) overflowing with groups of young women smoking. A commenter above mentioned the lack of public space available for such behavior. The coffee shop seems to have become a safe haven for women smoking openly in public. I would say the growth of the popularity of coffee shops have encouraged women to be seen, at least here, smoking in public. Which has probably had an influence on the acceptance of the behavior in general, which has no doubt increased its popularity.

Meanwhile, for cigarette advertising at nightclubs then I highly recommend the 2003 Tokyo Inc. article “The Night is Still Young” about a similar strategy in Japan, and which was quite a shock to someone who used to attend dance parties naively thinking they were more about peace, love, unity, and respect:

Liquor and cigarette companies initially started to push their products to Japan’s club generation about five years ago, when new legislation banned them from advertising to people under 20. Since you have to be over 20 to legally enter a club in Japan, clubs become the perfect forum for legitimate advertising to young people. (Advertisers know, of course, that many people under 20 are habitual clubbers who can easily get into the venues). Ishihara calls it a “closed world,” a guaranteed market of self-selected consumers. Indeed, the rapid rise of tobacco sponsorship in clubs and bars since the 1990s globally has been well documented. Corporate sponsorship started conspicuously in Japan in 1996, notes Ishihara, when Grammy award-winning producer and DJ Little Louis Vega received an unprecedented [yen] 3 million from Gordon’s Gin to spin his magic in a Tokyo club.

And, getting back on track now, then a third strategy to circumvent legislation by TTCs has been “trademark diversification”, also known as “brand stretching”. In short, it means to extend a well-known brand to things with which it isn’t traditionally associated, and the article notes that in 1996, Brown & Williamson took great interest in the fact that leading Korean tobacco company KT&G:

…had advertised its brand Simple in numerous magazines aimed at female readers. Strategies included the coupling of cigarettes with bottles of Chanel perfume, and the placement of advertisements in foreign language women’s magazines available in South Korea. (p. 5)

And which as I explain here, are much more popular among young women than Korean magazines. But finally, and semi-related to the last, TTCs also used—again—ostensibly gender-neutral sports sponsorship to discreetly target females, in 1991 British American Tobacco creating “a Kent Golf Sponsorship program targeted at higher-educated, male and females aged 25 years or older with above average incomes” for instance.

But that was 20 years ago. And indeed, one big criticism of this otherwise excellent journal article (and as far as I know, the only one of its kind), is that despite the authors’ searches of internal TTC document searches being conducted between May 2006 and March 2008, literally all the practical examples of TTC strategies to target Korean women they provide are from the 1990s. Why?

Granted, there may be legal reasons and/or questions of access to consider, but these are not mentioned. But regardless, as I type this I’m suddenly left wondering as to if and/or how much they still apply in 2011, and it seems inopportune to continue as intended with more prosaic matters, like, well, how TTCs determined the appropriate cigarette circumference size for the Korean female market.

Source: kkwang.

Instead then, let me reserve that for a new, final Part 5, and I’ll finish here by opening that above question to the floor: what evidence have you yourself noticed of any of the strategies being used by TTCs described here? Or are they a little passé in 2011? And if so, then what else explains why so many young Korean women and teenagers are taking up the habit these days, as explained in previous posts?

(Other posts in the series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Newsflash, Korea’s Hidden Smokers; Living as a female smoker in Korea)

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

9 thoughts on “The Gender Politics of Smoking in South Korea: Part 4

  1. I have to say smoking looks sexy sometimes. A kiss from a smoker takes that away though. I’ve always been fascinated by this when one of the Korean girls while I was at college would run away so they wouldn’t be caught (had also been threatened with a smack) by their boyfriend. She was more open about it when we all met up when I visited Jeju….still hid it under threats of violence from her new boyfriend though.


    1. Ditto to how it looks. I think because like I mentioned in the text, a stigma against cigarette smoking for women has a long history in Western countries (if anything, buttressed by later knowledge about its negative health effects), and even now I don’t think it’s entirely disappeared there. Hence “good” girls don’t smoke, in my imagination. But I see an attractive one that does, then I instantly think about what other “bad” things she’s prepared to do…

      Not to be taken too seriously of course. Unlike the deal with your Korean classmate though: did her boyfriends actually slap her, or just threaten to? Either way, how can anybody voluntarily date someone like that???


        1. Glad to hear it, although just the threat sounded like it still had a big impact on her habits and lifestyle.

          Not that I’m for anyone smoking by any means (actually, I’m an anti-smoking Nazi), but I can’t imagine dating someone who treats me more like their child than an as equal.


  2. I guess they need to ban smoking in restaurant, cafes, coffee shops, enclosed areas, etc. Maybe then at least some of the female smokers might quit.

    But I can’t figure out how anyone can hide the fact that the smoke from people who get within 2 meters of them. The stink is seriously strong, and to cover it up you’d need to literally bathe in strong perfume, which might also repel people. A teacher at school did that, and you could smell that she had walked through a corridor for hours after least. And in the classroom with her… oh man, it was bad.

    The mind still boggles that smoking is still legal and that tobacco companies and their executives haven’t been dumped into an active volcano.


  3. MisookEUNNIE! Erm when I was working in KR, my team was about 90% guys. Almost all of them smoked. LOL They were also concidentally very handsome. I went for smoke breaks with them during work.

    My reasoning was that the air in Seoul was killing me anyway…LOL so I might as well. I call that my Mexico City Rationale. I mean if breathing the air is the equivalent of smoking a pack a day…I might as well get some nicotine.

    Later, we had a team dinner and the boss said something about my smoking. I would say the comment had a little tinge of disapproval. Apparently only bad girls smoke in pulblic.

    But if you’re a woman and you are a career person in Korea, what do you do? I know for a fact that not all girls get married. If all of the guys do someting on the team, I personally think it’s a good idea to be a team player.

    Maybe I just enjoy smoking.

    I actually did try to be a “team player via substance abuse” at another job. My group there was REALLY into drinking after work. I couldn’t hang. I did go out a lot, but I was usually ready to die from alcohol by the time they were just getting started!

    Sadly, a lot of work decisions etc got made between 6PM and 2AM…

    People get to know one another and form relationships on things like smoke breaks.

    The girls seemed to prefer snack breaks or dainty lunch breaks. The ones at my office were either married with kids or extremely goodlooking and well coiffed. I felt more relaxed with the guys.

    Men sometimes are funnier and more interesting, and in my field the guys can be more helpful with work issues.

    I don’t really smoke anymore, but as far as health goes I’m more concerned with getting exercise and eating non-gmo/antibiotic/hormone-filled food than chuffing the odd ciggie. Right now stress is probably my #1 problem.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s