Quick Hit: Living as a female smoker in Korea

Coffee and Cigarettes 2003 Fume Cette Cigarette Korea(Sources: left, flygookee; right, Emmanuel Robert-Espalieu, auteur)

The other day Kim Young-hee (26) smoked in public instead of a cafe. She took out a cigarette impulsively while waiting for the bus home after a few drinks with her friends.

“I was a bit tipsy and felt like a puff. After I lit the cigarette, a random middle-aged man came up to me and started shouting as if I had done something very bad. He said, ‘I will slap your face if you don’t throw your cigarette away right now.’ He called me ‘dirty little woman.’”

She still thinks it was ridiculously unfair for him to reproach her because the man was also holding a cigarette…

See The Korea Times for more stories of similar incidents, and my The Gender Politics of Smoking in South Korea series (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Newsflash, Part 4, Korea’s Hidden Smokers) for more context. As explained in the latter (see the article in the last link for a summary of the series), the stigma against women smoking leads to massive under-reporting by them, resulting in official figures of roughly 2-5% of Korean women smoking, against best estimates of roughly 20% (see here for a handy international comparison). What’s more, the previous government was accused of deliberately downplaying the figures to stress its success in lowering the (admittedly more pressing) high male smoking rate, and while technically I haven’t seen the same accusations leveled at the outgoing Lee Myung-bak Administration, I haven’t found any official acknowledgement of how problematic its figures are either.

Korean Woman Smoking SmallMeanwhile, since my last post in the series was published nearly a year ago, probably the biggest developments have been the Seoul City Council’s continuing efforts to implement its 2011 plans to increase the number of public areas being designated smoke-free to 1/5th of the city by 2014 (smoking on sidewalks was already banned in 2010); and also efforts by some companies, both public and private, that have gone so far as to make being a non-smoker a prerequisite for promotion. For more details on both of those, see “Getting Tough: Korean Smokers Passed Over for Job Promotions” by Bobby McGill at Busan Haps, who also notes that (source, right: sungjinism):

The central government is doing what it can while avoiding Korea’s third-rail of politics, the “sin tax”. Few things more quickly turn the public against you here than raising taxes on Korean’s beloved cigarettes and alcohol. And the evidence shows that aside of potentially costing elected officials their jobs, it does little to curb smoking anyway.

The last time the government raised taxes on cigarettes was in 2004 by 354 won (30 cents) when 52 percent of the male population was smoking. The rate dropped a paltry seven points to 45 percent by 2007, but then increased the three subsequent years hitting 48.3 percent in 2010 before leveling off back at the current 45 percent.

I’d agree that the government is avoiding the sin tax, but disagree that that 2004 tax hike constitutes evidence against its effectiveness: a raise of 354 won being moot when just last year, packs were still at “the very smoker-friendly price of 2,700 won each” (US$2.53 as I type this). Moreover, in November “The International Tobacco Control Policy Evaluation Project’s team of some 100 health experts from around 20 countries” said that “it is imperative for South Korea to raise taxes on tobacco products,” and also 50% of respondents in a December 2010 survey by The Ministry of Health and Welfare “said that they would seriously consider quitting if the price was at least 8,000 won per pack.”

What do you think, about any of the above? Especially those among you that smoke yourselves? Personally, when I hear of women getting threatened, even slapped in the face for smoking in 2013, I’m very skeptical about news of improvements. But I realize that that is likely much more a manifestation of general misogyny than being anti-smoking per se, with Nathan McMurray of Korea Law Today, for instance, being much more optimistic about changing attitudes:

Reducing smoking is a process that will require the collective willpower of the entire country, because it is a habit so deeply ingrained in the culture. However, positive strides have been made to reduce the number of male smokers. In fact, since I have been in this country, I have noticed that the perception/acceptance of smoking has morphed into something different than it used to be.

Either way, let me conclude by passing on some further reading I’ve come across in the past year. First, Smoking Roomspecifically gender and smoking-related, which show that — of course — it’s by no means just Korea where the number of female smokers is soaring (source, right: Jude Lee; CC BY 2.0):

Empowered women smoke more (New Scientist)

Torches of Freedom: Women and Smoking Propaganda (Sociological Images)

Female smoking death risk ‘has soared’ (BBC)

Women who quit smoking before 30 cut risk of tobacco-related death by 97% (The Guardian)

Lung cancer in women ‘to soar’ by 2040 (BBC)

And finally, on some methods for curbing smoking in general:

In an unsurprising development, smoke-free laws have lead to fewer hospitalizations (io9)

Look what they’ve done to my brands: Cigarette-makers will weather the spread of plain-packaging laws (The Economist)

Why cigarette packs matter (Bad Science)

Producing Bodies in Anti-Smoking Campaigns (Sociological Images)

Smoked out: Can a film of a smoker trigger the act? (The Economist)

16 thoughts on “Quick Hit: Living as a female smoker in Korea

  1. I enjoy the taboo against women smoking because it means less smokers on the street in general. It should be taboo for everyone though.


      1. I enjoy your blog, though you’re at an intellectual level way above The Stumbling Engineer. I thought I could contribute to this particular thread, if only by introducing some levity.


  2. I was walking through a park in my small town when I saw one of my ex-students (university age) smoking. Her friend saw me, immediately notified her, and then she quickly stepped on her cigarette and turned around with her hair covering her face, hoping I wouldn’t recognise her. I thought it was funny because she is allowed to smoke now. I do like the at least superficial level of respect that agashis have, even the nararee ones.

    I have definitely noticed an increase in women smoking, especially around universities. It’s interesting that the article mentioned how many of them have to hide it from their boyfriends. I’ve actually seen a number of young couples smoking together, or sharing a cigarette.

    As for the official stats, as I think I’ve mentioned before, it couldn’t be more obvious that they’re bullshit, especially with women and teenagers.


  3. It’s ironic that while reading this post, a woman is smoking right in front of me and puffing out all the toxic in my face. If only I could tell her to stop, but well, we are in the bar. The woman in the article was smoking at the bus stop, but the ajossi was out of line to reprimand her like that.


  4. The ajeosshi doesn’t care about smoking or her health or public safety or anything else. I have also been shouted out by irate old men who are smoking at the exact same time as scolding me. It only takes a couple of times before you realize it’s not worth the risk and keep it inside a cafe or around a hidden corner. It’s about controling “decent” female behavior in public. If you have the decency to duck around a corner into an alley or into a phone booth and act ashamed, you will never get harassed, even if everyone can see you. You are sufficiently acknowledging that you are doing something that should be hidden when a female does it, so you’re all good. The nerve to do it right out in the open like you’re not even embarrassed? That’s the issue.


  5. Hi! I know this post is a couple years old but I’ll be going to Seoul in a month and I am a female smoker. If I was to go out on the streets like the market, do I have to find a quiet spot to smoke or there are smoking areas like in Dubai and Singapore?


    1. Greetings Swan Princess- in reply to your very respectable question! my wife is Korean, we are married for 36 years now. My wife has been challenged in S. Korea when she and I would venture out to outside eating places in S. Korea. She would be sitting right next to me, a couple of Korean business men at our table who my wife’s manager knew. My wife was drinking wine and then fired up a smoke- the Korean men began complaining because she was not hiding her smoke. My wife simply said, its none of your business and I dont want to hear your mouth. She added- My husband is sitting right here, he is American, we have two sons together, we are both career people- I have earned the right to do and say what I please. Finally, she told them, if they didnt like it, they could simply move to another table and get over it. I love my wife! smoke em if you got em!


  6. Being the American male in which I am – at age 55 now, I know this smoking thing happened in Korea and was about a female however, why is it his business – as a perfect stranger to be challenging her- in public in that way? I will tell you this! He is very lucky he was not confronting my wife like that- she would have slapped him into his place. Seriously, Korea or not, my wife of 36 years is also from S. Korea and has the right to do what she wants. Let us grow up Korea and give the Korean women a break- equal rights! God bless our amazing Korean women!!


  7. It’s few years later that I got interested to search up about how people treat other smokers in other countries and stumbled upin this website. I don’t know about you,but I am respectfully trying to not exhale my smoke when I am near people,I live in a pretty quiet place,so it’s not like people arw running here and there,but I do out my cigarette in other hand or only taking another smoke of it after I have passed the person. Besides isn’t it just respectful to not smoke in bus stops if there are other people? Then again it looks like she was alone at first,so it wouldn’t be a big deal. I could say as a female smoker in European country and living in Baltic States,here they don’t have many speacial cafés or rooms from smokers and either way everyone goes outside to smoke or while going somewhere. I smoke only for a year,being 22 now and when I was a non-smoker,I didn’t feel bothered by smokers,if they respected others and didn’t exhale the smoke in people’s faces then it’s alright,but literally exhaling it in person’s face is act of shame. The person doing that doesn’t respect himself/herself. But one thing is that my mother told me that when she was young a lot of people who smoked respected others and if they asked them to not smoke near them,they moved or from beginning smoked further away from people who don’t smoke. So in this century people have just forgotten what ‘respecting others’ is.


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