Quick Hit: Korea’s Hidden Smokers

I wrote an article for Busan Haps this month, about a topic which many of you will recognize from my The Gender Politics of Smoking in South Korea series (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Newsflash, Part 4; Living as a female smoker in Korea). Rather than have anyone sift through those thousands of words just to find sources for the statistics I mention in the article though, let me make it easier by providing them all here instead (in order of their appearance):

Here is the July 8 2010 Busan Metro article, with my translation.

• In that article, the OECD average male smoking rate of 28.4% (in 2007) was unsourced, but the same figure — albeit for 2008 — can be found at Asian Correspondent’s translation of this Yonhap News report.

• The 1980 figure of a 79% male smoking rate is from footnote 80 of “The strategic targeting of females by transnational tobacco companies in South Korea following trade liberalisation” by Kelley Lee et al., Globalization and Health 2009, 5:2. Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to find the Chosun Ilbo article referred to in that, but the same figure can be found in this January 2007 Arirang report instead.

Gallop Korea’s figure of “almost as many as 1 in 5” young Korean women smoking (technically 17%) comes from Gallop Korea: Investigating the Actual Condition of Smoking in South Korea, mentioned in footnote 28.

• That is also the source for the figure of 83.4% of Koreans disapproving of women smoking.

Mathias Specht was the Korea Times reader who witnessed an old man slapping women in the face for smoking in March 2010.

I’m No Picasso is an example of one expat female smoker who has changed her smoking habits because of the stigma against women smoking. More can be found in comments to the posts in my blog series.

• More on the “1989 National Health Promotion Law Enforcement Ordinance” can be found in the Globalization and Health article.

• C. Paul Dredge’s Smoking in Korea article, from the Vol. 20., No.4, April 1980 Korea Journal, can be downloaded as a PDF here (the March 1980 reference is a typo by me). For a change though, probably scrolling down Part 1 of my series is actually a much quicker way of finding the text I refer to.

• Finally, I’m indebted to I’m No Picasso for making the links between coffee shops and female smoking, which I expanded upon in Part 4.

8 thoughts on “Quick Hit: Korea’s Hidden Smokers

  1. What an impressive collection of sources – that must have taken quite some work. Don’t forget PC-방s as another refuge of the female smoker.

    Every year every MS and HS student is given a medical that includes a urine test. This checks for, amongst other things, 담배. What happens to this information? Isn’t it collected and compiled anywhere? Can anyone access it? I’m guessing it would prove conclusively that over 30% of HS boys and 20% of HS girls smoke, with the figures being much higher at technical and vocational HSs. Why are people relying on anonymous surveys of female smoking when the hard evidence on how many girls age 12-18 smoke is out there somewhere?


    1. Thanks – actually I was worried (in hindsight) that too many came from the one source, although I do use more in the posts themselves. And quite right about the PC bangs, although I still think they wouldn’t be quite the refuge the coffee shops are – after all, PC bangs are surely best known as places for guys to hang out, whereas the coffee shop = women association is so strong that some of my male students told me last semester that they don’t go to Starbucks because they’re men.

      (Sorry if we’ve already discussed any of that in previous comments btw)

      Very interesting point about about the urine test – it would be interesting to follow that up.


      1. I have to say that in the entirety of my time in Korea, I have never, ever seen a Korean woman on her own in a PC room. Not once. I have on very, very rare occasions seen one seated with a guy at the “couple seats” in the fancier class of PC rooms, but never alone.
        Of course, the number one place for women to smoke is the toilets. Although things seem to be cleaning up slowly (my guess because public smoking is slowly becoming more acceptable for women), public bathrooms for women tend to be a bit of a nightmare.


        1. Ah, having read the comments below, I should add the caveat that I’ve seen plenty of women *working* in PC rooms. Just not hanging out there.


  2. James, if you can do it without coming off as too much of a creep you might find it a very interesting little project to go around the smoking areas of PC-bangs at various times of the day and night interviewing the women there. I’m sure you’d find a lot of bargirls and call girls killing time, waiting to go on shift, or coming off shift, but the others would be a very interesting group indeed. A lot of foreigners, even long-termers, are surprisingly ignorant of PC-bang culture. While about 90% of those in the smoking section are usually guys, there are a number of women, not always very young, who also seem to enjoy nothing more than puffing away while engrossed in a VR game or Kartrider. (on a side note, it would make an interesting study to try to find out which games female gamer-nerds prefer, Kartrider no doubt being much more popular amongst females than males for whatever reason).

    As for the school medical tests, I really have to wonder if some higher-ups in the Ministry of Education or Health know what the score is and feel that it would just be too shameful to Korea to release the real data. To prove that by year 3 high school over 40% of boys are smoking would suggest a youth-control failure but one that the public could stomach. To prove that before they even finish school over 30% of girls are smoking would demolish all conceptions about the purity of Korean womanhood (even if 90% of them are still virgins).


    1. I’d be one of those ignorant foreigners – now that I think about it, I’ve only been in a PC Bang once or twice since…let’s see…2003, so thanks for enlightening me. It would be interesting to interview the women in them then, although in the actual event they’d probably resent the intrusion and distraction from whatever they’re doing on the computer. I find bars on weekdays to be much better for that sort of thing, when they’re sitting around bored as hell and just love to have anyone to talk to (wish I’d known this Korean practice device MUCH earlier!).

      I thought the same thing about the school medical tests. I’m quite serious about it being something very interesting to follow-up on, and one of the first things to do would be to see if it’s been done anywhere else too. But do you really think nicotine is actually tested for already, seeing as there’s so little political interest in the issue as it is? Although now that I think about it though, it’s strange that even the Ministry of Health and Welfare itself seems so reliant on mere telephone surveys to determine the smoking rate, and not very many at that – just 1500 people in this 2006 survey, and I recall a 2009(?) one (but can’t find the source right now sorry) that only had 3000 too. You’d think it would seek out the most reliable data it can, even if its own low survey numbers do tend to somehow exaggerate its successes in decreasing the male smoking rate (as it’s accused of in that link).


      1. James, I know for a fact that the standard Korean medical urine test checks for smoking / nicotine. A few years ago a number of teachers from my district had to do a last-minute medical before New Year’s for insurance purposes. The hospital had extra staff assigned to us to expedite the process and after I brought back my piss stick I know that the woman examining it said ‘담배’ to the woman with the clip board (I had just told the doctor I smoked a pack a day anyways).

        There are also breathalysers that can check for smoking. Last year my school had a no-smoking-awareness display at our school festival. Students could stop by and if they blew clean their names were entered in a raffle. We tested it out on some of the smoking and non-smoking teachers and it seemed very accurate. It wouldn’t be too hard ‘enforce’ an accurate survey of secondary-school students if the powers that be really wanted to.


  3. “Finally, I’m indebted to I’m No Picasso for making the links between coffee shops and female smoking, which I expanded upon in Part 4.”

    Anthropologists who study the Middle East have for a long time made this connection regarding female smoking there.


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