중앙데일리

Buying cigarettes easy for underage smokers

Feb 16,2013

A 15 year old in worn jeans enters a mom-and-pop store in Anyang, Gyeonggi, and asks for a pack of cigarettes. There’s a sign on the shop wall that reads, “We don’t sell cigarettes or alcoholic drinks to teens under 19.” But the 60-something owner doesn’t ask the boy to present his identification. The youth gets the cigarettes without even having to use the fake identification in his pocket.

This is the most common method that young smokers use to purchase cigarettes; the majority just go into the stores themselves, pretending to be of age. But as the government has been putting stricter regulations on juvenile tobacco sales, teens are coming up with many different ways of getting around them. One of the most prevalent is to get someone to buy the cigarettes for them, be it a homeless person, a senior citizen or just an adult hanging around in a public park.

Kim, a 20-year-old university student in Seoul, says she was intimidated into buying cigarettes for a group of high school students.

“A bunch of teenagers approached me with 5,000 won [$4.70] and told me to buy them a pack. I didn’t want to, but they were so threatening that I couldn’t refuse.”

The desire for tobacco can even lead teenagers to go so far as to break the law. In order to deceive cashiers, some of them duplicate the ID cards of a family member or create fake identification. In these cases, it’s difficult for store employees to notice the fakes and reject them.

Furthermore, as many children now have access to the Internet without significant supervision from their parents, it has become easier for them to obtain cigarettes without presenting ID. There are Web sites that freely sell all kinds of cigarettes.

“If I have the desire to smoke, there are always lots of ways for me to get cigarettes, either by myself or with my friends who smoke,” says Lim, a 15 year old who attends middle school in Gyeonggi.


The smoking rate among Korean teenagers has been high for many years. According to 2012 juvenile statistics issued by Statistics Korea, Korea Centers for Disease Control and Protection and the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, the smoking rate reaches 18 percent among high school students, while that of middle school students stands at around 13 percent. The smoking rate of girls under 19 stands at over 5 percent.

Like young smokers everywhere, Korean find it very difficult to resist peer pressure, but peer pressure is particularly strong here. Nearly 90 percent of teenagers with friends who smoke turn into smokers, and the other 10 percent are at a high risk of picking up the habit. This means that an epidemic of teenage smoking can begin from several teens bumming cigarettes off their friends.

Government agencies, including law enforcement, are cooperating to combat juvenile smoking by establishing and enforcing related laws. But even if strict laws exist, that doesn’t mean they are being enforced all the time. The relatively lax way with which tobacco laws are currently put into practice in Korea makes it quite easy for kids to purchase cigarettes.

When asked how he checks if a customer buying cigarettes is an adult, a part-time worker at a convenience store in Gangnam District, southern Seoul, answered that he just makes them show their ID if they look young.

But an official from the juvenile protection department affiliated with the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family pointed out that 28 percent of cigarette retailers were caught selling cigarettes to kids under 19 at least once in 2011.

She further explained that there is no legal basis for punishing teenagers for such purchases unless they explicitly break the law, by using a fake ID, for example.

“This isn’t just the kids’ fault. It’s adults who turn a blind eye and let teens keep smoking,” the convenience store worker said.



By Kim Jae-kyung, Kim Sun-nyu [enational@joongang.co.kr]



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