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[Seoul Struggles 2] Lack of booths leaves Seoul smokers cornered

Tobacco-free zones force smokers into alleyways, to the disgust of local residents

A smoking booth stands in Jung-gu, central Seoul. (Ko Jun-tae/The Korea Herald)
A smoking booth stands in Jung-gu, central Seoul. (Ko Jun-tae/The Korea Herald)
A Friday night in Gangnam means restaurants and bars crowded with people socializing and celebrating the weekend, but come the morning, every back alley and corner is strewn with cigarette butts.

Gutters that start relatively empty and clean in the morning end up filled with cigarette butts by nighttime, and the view is unpleasant for smokers and nonsmokers alike.

“It’s flat-out disgusting,” said Yoon Eun-hye, a 26-year-old nonsmoker who visits the Gangnam Station area almost every weekend.

“Why can’t people smoke in designated areas and be responsible for their cigarette butts? They wouldn’t want cigarette butts stacked up near where they live, so they should act the same in populous areas in consideration of others.”

But these designated areas can be hard to find.

Seoul, which used to be a haven for smokers, has declared thousands of smoke-free areas over the last decade. Smoking has been banned in most multiuse facilities, and that category now covers more places.

As smokers were mostly pushed off of the main streets, smaller alleys and pathways have borne the brunt.

“I’m sick of these people smoking right in front of my house every day,” said Kim Soon-ja, a 66-year-old resident of Gangnam District, southern Seoul, who lives on the first floor of an apartment in a densely packed residential area.

“I yell and shoo them away every time I find them, but I always find more. This sickens me. That disgusting smell spreads into my balcony and stains my laundry, and I find cigarette butts nearby every morning.”

Smokers are aware they are unwelcome, but they say they are forced to sneak into corners to smoke as their rights were largely ignored in anti-smoking campaigns. Finding a place to smoke without being frowned upon is almost impossible, they say.

Kim Sung-hwan, an insurance salesperson based in Jungnang District, eastern Seoul, has always struggled to find somewhere to smoke. He says he memorized the location of almost every smoking booth in the main areas of the city he visits for work.

“But to be clear, there aren’t that many smoking booths in Seoul, and it takes a lot of time and fierce walking to enjoy a much-needed five-minute break from work,” Kim, 31, said.

“I have seen a lot more places that outright ban smoking than those that allow smoking. I’ve certainly gotten used to it now, but I just hope there are more smoking areas for smokers to maintain their lifestyle after paying all those taxes to buy a pack.”

South Korea imposes a 74 percent tax on a pack of cigarettes, which means that a smoker pays 166 won (15 cents) per cigarette. That should guarantee some rights for smokers, like being given places to smoke, Kim and many other smokers argue.

“We don’t want to invade the rights of those who don’t smoke, and to do that we need more smoking booths,” he added. “That’s why so many people hide in corners to smoke and throw away cigarette butts in back alleys.”

According to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency, the smoking rate for Seoul adults was 16.7 percent in 2019, and 30.9 percent among men. Smokers argue they should be represented as well as those who don’t smoke.

“I don’t think we are asking anything too dramatic here. We just want the government to designate us places to smoke and directions to find them,” said a smoker who wished to remain anonymous.

“It’s not like we are going to quit smoking if there are no smoking zones. People are still going to smoke, and without designated locations, we are effectively forced to smoke in inconvenient places.”

Despite smokers’ calls, the Seoul Metropolitan Government has no plans to install more tobacco zones, even though it has plans to designate more smoke-free areas.

The metropolitan government’s approach -- prioritizing the rights of nonsmokers above those of smokers -- is in line with the public health policy aim of the Ministry of Health and Welfare.

The Constitutional Court backed this stance in 2004, when it ruled that the right to refuse exposure to cigarette smoke should be prioritized above the right to smoke, as smoking can infringe people’s rights to health and life.

“We have been focusing on protecting the rights of people to stay free from harmful effects of smoking, and that is prioritized in accordance with local health regulations,” said an official with the public health division at the Seoul Metropolitan Government.

“That means we are centered on creating more smoke-free zones, not smoking booths. The city government does not have plans to increase the number of smoking zones, and that job is really in the hands of district governments.”

As of December last year, Seoul had 287,200 smoke-free zones throughout the city and hired 159 workers to police them. The city imposes a fine of up to 100,000 won for those who are caught smoking in smoke-free zones.

But at the same time, Seoul had just 7,098 smoking booths, most of which were made and operated by the private sector. The official said the city government is aware of the complaints, but that as much as smokers want more smoking booths, many nonsmokers disagree.

For the time being, the city government has no plans to encourage its districts to install more smoking booths, as people can still smoke in any area not declared smoke-free. The focus is more on curbing the smoking rate and cutting down on secondhand smoke and litter.

The city government spends most of its smoking-related budget on tobacco cessation support with medication, therapies and classes. When fewer people smoke, fewer problems will arise with public smoking and littering, it believes.

“We do receive requests for more smoking booths across diverse areas, but we have also faced requests to remove the smoking booths that are already installed,” the official added.

“Installing more smoking booths may seem like a solution to all problems, but it’s not. When there is a smoking booth, people gather there to smoke and cause a huge secondary smoking issue for nearby residents. And more cigarette butts are found in these areas as well as other trash.”

By Ko Jun-tae (ko.juntae@heraldcorp.com)
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