The Korea Herald


[Robert J. Fouser] An argument for more smoking booths

By Korea Herald

Published : Feb. 9, 2024 - 05:30

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On a recent visit to Seoul, I noticed something that had never caught my attention before: smoking in outdoor nonsmoking areas. As a nonsmoker, I try to avoid secondhand smoke, but I began to look at smoking areas after noticing groups of smokers in front of a restaurant with a no-smoking sign on the side of the building. The sidewalks near the restaurant also had a sign stating that smoking was prohibited and punishable by a fine. I wondered what caused people to ignore the sign, even at the risk of a 100,000 won ($75) fine.

The situation in front of the restaurant does not reflect the successes of the anti-smoking movement in South Korea. In the 1980s, men smoked everywhere in public. The few women who smoked did so in private. In 1980, 79 percent of adult Korean men smoked, an astounding number. The percentage began to decline in the 1990s as South Korea transformed itself into an advanced industrial democracy. In the 2000s, smoking rates declined rapidly, and the anti-smoking movement succeeded in banning smoking in public spaces.

As smoking rates continued to decline in the 2010s, the anti-smoking movement turned its attention to outdoor public spaces, such as parks and sidewalks. Local governments gradually adopted smoking bans and signs banning smoking appeared on sidewalks and building walls. Large office buildings set up smoking booths or designed smoking areas.

The dramatic change in attitudes toward smoking in South Korea over the past 30 years was possible because people cooperated with new anti-smoking regulations. People may have grumbled about new regulations in private, but they cooperated and no-smoking inside public spaces became the norm.

What, then, explains the lack of cooperation in front of the restaurant that I walk by every day? What does it mean for the future of the anti-smoking movement?

Banning smoking indoors forces people outdoors, but banning smoking outdoors deprives people of a place to smoke. This leaves them with three choices: endure, find a smoking area or break the rules. Workers in large office buildings have easy access to smoking areas but workers in smaller buildings and customers in restaurants, cafes and bars have fewer options. The lack of public smoking areas means that they either have to endure, something that most smokers find difficult or break the rules. Breaking the rules is always easier in groups or in semi-secluded places like backstreets and alleyways.

A survey of rule breakers would likely show that most want to cooperate but find it difficult to do so because they cannot find a smoking area. One key, then, to increasing cooperation with outdoor smoking bans is more public smoking booths. Tokyo, a city that has many similarities with Seoul, has many public smoking booths on sidewalks, particularly in busy areas of the city. Like Seoul, large buildings have their own smoking areas, but public booths absorb smokers from places that are too small to create their own smoking area.

Some could argue that building more public smoking booths implies public support for smoking, which undercuts the efforts of public health authorities. The problem with this argument is that the government already accepts smoking as a legitimate adult activity because it allows cigarette sales and earns tax money from those sales. On the contrary, building more public smoking booths would help increase cooperation among smokers by relieving them of the temptation to break the rules.

The other key, of course, is continued reduction in smoking rates in South Korea. After a sharp decline in the 2000s, the rate of decline has slowed in recent years. In 2021, only 31 percent of adult men and 6 percent of adult women smoked, yielding a combined smoking rate of 18 percent. This is average for advanced industrial democracies, but the rate for men remains high. The smoking rate for men in Japan in 2019, for example, was 17 percent and only 11.5 percent in the US in 2021.

To reduce smoking rates, particularly among men, more effort is needed to reduce smoking among young people. Youth smoking rates have dropped to historic lows in most advanced countries, including South Korea. Recent figures from the US, for example, show that only 3.9 percent of teenagers smoke daily, a historic low.

Smoking is clearly on the way out in advanced countries as smoking rates continue to decline. In a generation, many countries will become almost smoke free. Until that time comes, South Korean cities need more sidewalk smoking booths to encourage cooperation among the ever-dwindling number of smokers.

Robert J. Fouser

Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Providence, Rhode Island. He can be reached at -- Ed.