How Many Teenage Girls Are Smoking?

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes. Photo by Irina Iriser from Pexels.

If you’ve been following my The Gender Politics of Smoking in South Korea series (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Newsflash, Part 4, Korea’s Hidden Smokers), you’ll know that there’s a huge stigma against women smoking here. This leads to chronic under-reporting by female smokers, which in turn leads to the government and media regularly giving female smoking rates as low as 2-4%. In reality though, best estimates put the rate among young women at roughly 20%, pointing to a looming health crisis.

Even if the coming presidential election brings more enlightened officials to the Ministry of Health and Welfare (보건복지부) however, which has previously overwhelmingly focused on—and been accused of exaggerating—reductions in the male smoking rate, there’ll still remain the problem of finding out how many young Korean women actually smoke.

Or will there? With my thanks, let me pass on a reader’s partial solution:

My coworker, the assistant haksaengbu (학생부) at my high school, made a list of students caught smoking. This is at a small-town girls high school, with 330 students age 15-18 in western years. So far this year (since 2 March) 14% of the students have been caught smoking, with 9.5% of the academic (moongwha; 문과) students caught and 25% of the vocational (sanggwha; 상과) students caught.

I would think that 14% would be the absolute minimum possible average in Korea, considering that we’re in a fairly conservative area and teachers can still punish students (though it’s pretty inconsistent and haphazard). Considering that those are only the ones who’ve been caught and there’s almost nothing in the way of lunchtime and after-school supervision, I’d guess that the amount who smoke on a daily basis is 50% higher and the ones who’ve tried it on occasion is double that.

In any event, if you wanted some incontrovertible statistics about teenage girls smoking in rural Korea based on a sample size in the hundreds there you go!

Later, they added:

If you’d like the breakdown it was 21 out of 226 moonghwa students and 26 out of 106 sangwha students. I believe a couple of the sangwha students have dropped out/gone awol/transferred.

What do you think? How does this compare to readers’ own schools?

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

4 thoughts on “How Many Teenage Girls Are Smoking?

  1. Well, I teach at a university, not a high school, so this is mostly irrelevant, but I’ve noticed female students much more openly smoking now… and that they tend to do so from earlier. (It used to be it was more likely they’d publicly smoke in senior year, but now even sophomores are doing it; though it may just be sophomores followed the lead of older female students in doing so in public. Of course, it’s a sign of rebellion and so on, but in one of my classes a group decided to discuss smoking etiquette and the topic of women smoking came up; a surprising number of the women in the group sheepishly admitted to being smokers, and of those, more than I expected admitted to having started young. (ie. in high school.)

    Makes me want to get in a time machine and beat the living shit out of Edward Bernays for that whole Torches of Freedom marketing coup of his. (Among other things.)

    I think it’s one thing when people don’t understand the link between smoking and cancer. But we all know that now, so I see smoking as a kind of intelligence/willpower test. Were it not for the fact that health insurance is socialized, I’d not worry about it at all… except someone has to pay for all the cancer treatment that so many of them are guaranteeing will be necessary.

    One could, to be fair, say the same of a lot of things, like certain drinking, dietary, or (lack of) exercise habits, not all of which intelligence/willpower tests I am doing so well on. (And of course we’re ignoring the genetics of addiction, because some people do see to be more genetically predisposed to acquiring and struggling harder to overcome addictions.)


    1. Very sorry for the delay in replying Gord – after a week over a week of dwelling on your comment, I’m forced to admit that I have nothing really to add to it sorry (the curse of great minds thinking alike?). I have though, likewise noticed an ever so slight increase in the number of women openly smoking at my own university (or at least in and around the group of 3 buildings I spend 95% of my time in), although at most 1 or 2 a day, in contrast to the 40 or 50 or so men I’ll see.

      Off topic, but a much more interesting and noticeable change is all the PDA by students these days, whether on campus or on the subway, although I suspect that conservative Busan is a few years behind Seoul in that regard. But come to think of it, our own universities, both being conservative Christian ones, would be a good control to test that regional difference!


      1. Oh, I see way more female students than that smoking, but, amusingly enough, there’s a split as to who they smoke with: some female smokers — only the most daring of them — smoke with male smoker friends; the majority seem to see smoking as a gender-segregated activity, and though they share smoking areas with guys, tend to sit with their female smoker friends within that shared space.

        Annoyingly, the smoking spaces in my building are right by the entrances, so I see (and smell) the smokers every time I go in or out. (And have to see the ocean of mucus they expectorate generously for all the world to share, though at least I no longer have to walk through that crud: they’re just far enough from the door that one needn’t walk through the tubercular offerings anymore.)

        As for PDA, I don’t see much of that, though I can’t say I’ve been paying much attention. Nobody does much PDA on the subway here in my line of sight, but that’s probably because I almost always am on Line 1, which is the most violent, nasty, lashing-out-at-strangers subway line in Seoul. (And, not coincidentally, the subway line that goes through many of the most famous red-light districts.) I don’t see much PDA on campus either.

        As for my campus being “conservative” well, hmm. In my experience, while the Catholics are conservative everywhere, in Korea they tend to be much less so than the Protestant Christians. My Canadian sensibility — that Catholics are more dogmatic and repressive than “Protestants” (like, say, Anglicans or Lutherans — because when I was growing up we didn’t have many anti-evolution evangelical nutters around, and the few we had were universally regarded as weirdoes) has become essentially reversed in reference to Korea by many experiences of the Protestants here being the dogmatic, bigoted, nepotistic, anti-every-other-church-even-in-the-same-denomination fanatics who speak in tongues and declare places like Thailand “sinful” for being Buddhist; and contrarily Catholics being the ones happy to accompany me to a Buddhist temple to look at the pretty lanterns on the Buddha’s Birthday, and open-minded about cultural difference, and also somewhat cognizant that the West has had Christianity far longer than Korea, etc. (Though not necessarily cognizant about all the genocide and murder carried out there in the name of their God. It’s amazing how little some Korean Catholics seem to know about Church history in Europe.)


  2. This is straying way off topic but I must concur with Gord. There just don’t seem to be any liberal Protestants in Korea. There are some who behave very differently around their “church people” than at other times, but theologically there’s no liberalism at all. The astounding ignorance most of them have about their own church history makes this all the more ironic. I would venture to guess that the majority have no idea what languages the Bible was written in, much less know anything about the Westminster Confession, Wesleyanism, or other things fundamental to their denominations.


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