When it comes to men in wealthy nations, few smoke more than South Korean men. In 2014, according to the latest available Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development data, 37 percent said they smoked every day.
At a time when people in developed nations are cutting back on smoking, that might comes as a surprise — particularly because Koreans have more healthy habits than Americans do, particularly as they relate to obesity and drug abuse. The East Asian country has the world’s 11th highest life expectancy.
Concerned with the high numbers of people who smoke, the South Korean government launched an initiative to up the price of cigarettes. Health and Welfare Minister Moon Hyung-pyo called smoking the “biggest threat to national health” when he announced the measure in late 2014. The law would bump the average price of a pack of cigarettes from 2,500 won to 4,500 won ($2.22 to $4), The Sydney Morning Herald reported in 2014. New no-smoking zones and required health warnings on labels would follow.
Moon predicted that South Koreans would buy 34 percent fewer cigarettes. They didn’t.
In the first six months of 2016, a Nielsen report showed that South Koreans bought 16 percent more cigarettes than they did in the same period of 2015, the Korea Herald reported on July 20.
The smoking rate has generally decreased since the late '90s, but this tax didn’t provide the hit Moon had hoped for.
That’s significant as it's common sense to attribute South Korea’s high tobacco use to its ultra-low cost. At $2.22, the cost of a pack is significantly cheaper than it is in the United States, where it costs $7.26, on average, and can cost as much as $12.85 in New York. It’s also less expensive than in other highly developed East Asian countries, where a pack costs $5.30 in Japan, $6.40 in Hong Kong and $2.90 in Taiwan. Prices are similar to those found in Myanmar or Iran — countries much poorer than South Korea, which is home to high-tech companies, such as Samsung, LG and Kia.
Some studies have shown that increasing the price of cigarettes is a good way to reduce smoking. Research in 2002 showed that the number of smokers drops by 2.5 percent to 5 percent for every 10 percent increase in the price of cigarettes. Explaining how tobacco wreaks havoc on the human body has also been shown to be effective. A 2011 study from Australia, for instance, concluded that television ads were an excellent way to educate poorer adult smokers. And programs that parents who smoke could use at home to educate their children against smoking were helpful, demonstrated research in 2003 in North Carolina.
Currently, the cigarette market in South Korea is mostly dominated by domestic companies. However in the 1980s, transnational cigarette corporations targeted the country as it began to liberalize its market. During this time, cigarette smoking increased 25 percent, according to a British study. Author Lee Sung-kyu wrote that it made "Korea the 8th largest tobacco market in the world by 1992, whilst smoking prevalence increased among young adults and females."
Cigarettes have become a way of life — particularly for men. (Only 4 percent of women smoke because of myriad stigmas, but more are starting to light up.)
For many Korean men, the habit starts during their required military service, when smoking provides a way to unwind, socialize and pass the time. Packs were included in rations until the mid-1990s. It also could begin in adolescence; in 2013, 14.4 percent of males in middle and high school smoked. South Korea’s education system has been denounced as a rampant stress-causer. One in four high-schoolers have considered killing themselves, Al Jazeera reported in 2013. At more than twice the median rate, the suicide rate overall in South Korea is the highest among OECD countries.
The smoking habit continues in the workplace, which has its own stresses. South Koreans work, on average, 2,113 hours per year. That’s 54 percent more than Germans and 18 percent more than Americans, according to OECD data.
“My parents think I don’t try hard enough,” said Yeo Jung-hoon, 31, to The Washington Post earlier this year. “One time after a meeting, my boss said in front of everyone, ‘I don’t think you’re suitable for this job.’ I felt humiliated, but I couldn’t quit because I needed the money. It is a hell without an exit.”
Many studies urge Korean anti-smoking campaigns to consider issues causing stress and the long working hours. In South Korea, young people studying and adults working for 12 to 14 hours a day is run-of-the-mill. Life is so fast-paced that the often-used word "quickly" ("bbally, bbally," in Korean) is typed as "82 82" ("pally, pally") instead.
But maybe there’s hope for improvement. In 2012, a left-leaning presidential candidate ran on the slogan: “A life with evenings.”