Sunday, June 20, 2010

Why do Koreans smoke so much?

Here's the question:
Why do Koreans smoke so much? I'm from Delaware and am very used to a non-smoking environment. This is a disgusting shock.
For those who don't know, Delaware banned smoking in public workplaces almost a decade ago, so I imagine coming to Korea would be quite the shock. Some foreigners love it and others hate it, but Koreans are all used to it.

Korean men do smoke an awful lot (a trend increasing among women as well). It's hard to walk into a building or a bathroom without catching a whiff of it and while the government is trying to broaden their ban, it doesn't seem to have much of an effect on the prevalence. There are a lot of reasons why smoking among men is so common in Korea.


Aside from the youthful temptations, curiosity and peer pressure, young Korean men must face the most difficult smoking challenge: military service. Up until the mid-nineties, cigarettes were provided to young soldiers along with their coffee and tea. The brands changed (Hwarang, 88, This) but they were free and presumably included in their Type 3 rations. Now, cigarettes are no longer provided, but they are offered at a discounted price. Of course, you don't have to smoke and while no one is forcing you to indulge, those who opted for healthy lungs often got stuck doing more work than their smoking counterparts simply because when you're smoking you're not working. As a result, many young men pick up the habit in the military and when they rejoin civilian life they have trouble shaking the addiction.


If you were to ask a Korean why so many people smoke, they'll say that stress causes them to do it. Some will offer fun excuses like "I'd be much more unhealthy if I couldn't relieve my stress through smoking", but we know that doesn't make sense. Smoking might dilute the physical response to stress yet it does nothing for releasing stress or curing it. Everyone all over the world is stressed. Korea has not cornered that market. What's really at issue here is that Koreans typically don't use proper avenues for releasing stress. Instead of expressing themselves and sorting through the problems, many of them hold onto it (or jump off a building). 

Koreans might seem emotional when it comes to their national pride, but when it comes to themselves or their loved ones, silence is the answer. The reasons for this is a whole different topic in and of itself. In short, the curse of respect shines through. Burdening others with your problems is viewed as disrespectful and selfish. Throw that in with the fact that the Korean language is anything but loving and tender and you have a cocktail ripe for stress. And without a release for their stress, they look for ways to dampen it. Enter tobacco. 

Leisure Time

Yeah, Koreans don't have any. Sure they might go to Jeju for the weekend or a day trip on the slopes, but in general, Koreans do not have a leisurely culture. Because of this, they seek very quick and gratifying solutions. Smoking, drinking, room salons, sexy bars, kissing rooms, screen golf, PC rooms, game rooms and singing rooms are all quick ways to get your jollies. They can move from one to the other in a relatively short amount of time. It's a 빨빨 culture that prides itself on its pace. When generation after generation seeks this type of gratification, smoking will always find its way into the fold. In my building, there's an office where the men take smoke breaks every thirty minutes for ten minutes each time. If you do the math, you soon start to realize why they have to work such long hours.

Work Life vs. Family Life

This is a simple one. Work life is very important to the Korean man. If he's under fifty then you can assume that he'll be working everyday and most nights. It's not that he wants to spend time away from his family, but he has to if he wants to climb the ladder. When family is not the center of your world, then priorities change. At home, you typically want a nice, clean, quiet, peaceful and pure atmosphere that you have some sort of control over. At work, however, it's a fast-paced late-night drinking, smoking orgy of opposition to the atmosphere desired at home. By the time one reaches his fifties and is still smoking, they might say something like one of my older Korean friends did just the other day.
"Look at Korean life expectancy compared with nations who smoke less. Korea is higher than many of them."

And finally, my biggest obstacle: cheap smokes. One of the first thing foreign smokers realize when they get to Korea is that cigarettes are cheap. I remember being pleasantly surprised by this when I first arrived. Except for a few places in SE Asia, it's hard to find Marlboro's for less than three bucks a pack. I'm sure there's some data somewhere to back me up or disprove me, but I'm willing to bet that the smoking rate would drop pretty quickly if the cost of smokes jumped to UK or Canada-level. Personally, I'm still wondering when the health care system will start to take a hit from all the smoking-related illnesses that are sure to continue increasing. (Smokes haven't increased in price since the year 2000. Someone's going to have to pay for the poor health of smokers.) Either way, the low cost is certainly keeping some potential quitters off the fence.

You certainly noticed that I only focused on men. Women and smoking in Korea is an interesting topic and while I'd love to tackle it in my own way at some point, we'll allow James from The Grand Narrative do what he does best and continue on with this topic.


조안나 said...

Nice post. It's not just Koreans who are tempted by cheap smokes. Basically every friend that I have here that used to smoke in the states but either quit or cut back have turned into little chimneys since coming to Korea since a. it's ridiculously cheap and b. you can smoke everywhere. Lets hope that Korea goes the way of America (on the smoking front) sooner rather than later...

Brian said...

The first reason (military) seems like the biggest reason, but I'd also add it's a generally smoker-friendly culture. There is increasing anti-smoking stuff, and a few more places with no smoking signs, but in general men can smoke just about wherever they please.

I bucked the trend by actually quitting smoking in Korea. The trick is to go through a long bout of bronchitis that makes it hard to breathe and even harder to go to MiniStop and buy them. After the week or so it takes to recover, you figure you've made it this far you might as well not smoke anymore.

MarcusInArabia said...

As an American who tried to quit a few times back home, it is way to easy to smoke here. I smoke almost double the number of cigs as in the States.

Unknown said...

yes, most guys start smoking in the military but not so they can take a break from working. from what my friends have told me it's because of the latrines. cigarettes not only help ones bowels relax while sitting directly next to others but they also help cover the stench.

gracie said...

you need to look into the connections with the West bringing cigs into Asia as a way to make money and the false information they gave so to keep them smoking...

The Expat said...

Don't give me that victim crap, Gracie.

kissmykimchi said...

I think she has a point to an extent. It wasn't so long ago that cigarette companies deliberately obscured the amount of nicotine in their products and misrepresented the side-effects.

That's just the truth.

Now, however, the information is out there for those with the resources. All it takes is a quick fifteen minutes on the web or a trip to the library to learn about the perils of smoking.

If they're going to criminalize marijuana then nicotine should be as well.

Unknown said...

Lets keep in mind here it was the Red Man that induced the White Man to tobacco. Then the White Man to the Yellow Man. In the end, lets blame the Indians! JK of course.

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