Smokers kicking up a cloud

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Smokers kicking up a cloud

"We were fighting for our rights as consumers," said Han Jong-su, an officer at the Korea Smoker's Association, describing the group's efforts to lift the smoking ban at the 2002 World Cup games.

The smokers' battle to be allowed to light up at the World Cup venues in Korea started when the government announced in May that smoking would not be allowed in the 10 World Cup soccer stadiums. "It just so happens that May 31, the day of the opening ceremony, is also the World Health Organization's 'World Smoke-Out Day,'" Mr. Han said, claiming that the government wanted to use this coincidence as an opportunity to impress the WHO.

"It was a unilateral announcement. Smokers, the ones who would be most affected by the ban, were never consulted," Mr. Han complained. Smokers, who have mostly remained quiet thus far over the ever-growing social stigma associated with the "noxious weed," finally got riled up enough to take action, signing petitions against the ban. Nearly 300,000 people participated in the petition drive, both online and offline, organized by the Korea Smoker's Association in June.

"There are about 14 million smokers in Korea, representing 33.4 percent of the total population," said Sung Hyung-joo, president of I Love Smoking, an online community of smokers. "It is a matter of individual choice to smoke, just as coffee drinkers choose to drink coffee even while knowing that caffeine can be harmful to their health. No one condemns the coffee drinkers' choice to drink coffee, and the smokers' choice should, likewise, be respected."

Keenly aware that the public sentiment is largely against smoking, smokers' advocacy groups did not push their right to smoke per se, but instead took a practical approach. "If a small section of the stadium is designated a smoking area, and people smoke only in that section, what harm would it do to the rest of the spectators in the open air stadium?" asked Mr. Sung.

Mr. Han and his group called for a "Clean World Cup," instead of a "Smoke-free World Cup," offering to provide volunteers at the stadiums to help clean up the garbage, including cigarette butts, after each game.

The Korean Organizing Committee for the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan has since softened its previous position on the smoking ban. "We will have designated smoking areas outside the spectator stands," said Hong Soon-woo, a manager at Korea's organizing committee.

According to Mr. Hong, Japan will most likely join with Korea in banning smoking. "Although there was initial reluctance on the part of the Japan Organizing Committee because there are many smokers in Japan as well, we now have about 95 percent agreement with Japan on this matter," he said, adding that final discussion on the subject among Korea, Japan and FIFA will take place either in December or January.

Details of exactly where smoking will be allowed have yet to be worked out. "I expect smoking areas will be located at the stadium gates and places where there is good ventilation," suggested Mr. Hong. Even the VIP rooms will not be exempt from the smoking ban. It is up to the individual host cities to come up with the arrangements, according to Mr. Hong, including the cost of setting up smoking areas.

If the smokers seem to have earned a limited victory with the World Cup stadiums, it is to be a short-lived one. The government announced on Nov. 20 a comprehensive antismoking plan, leaving smokers very limited areas where they can puff away without breaking the law.

"The whole World Cup thing was symbolic. The real blow is the latest government plan," said Mr. Sung. Going much further than the 1996 legislation that created legally enforceable nonsmoking areas, the plan would designate certain buildings, such as government buildings, kindergartens, elementary and middle schools and hospitals, as totally "smoke-free" buildings. Places where young people frequent, including Internet cafes, would be designated nonsmoking areas. Owners of buildings may also declare their buildings "smoke-free."

The plan also provides the legal basis for the smoking ban during the 2002 World Cup, calling for a total smoking ban in the spectator stands of outdoor stadiums with more than 1,000 seats. Fines for smoking in nonsmoking areas would be upped to 100,000 won ($80) from the current 20,000-30,000 won.

In announcing the plan, the Ministry of Health and Welfare said the government's goal is to bring down the number of smokers from the current 67.8 percent of adult males to less than 30 percent by the year 2010. The number of female smokers would also be approximately halved, to below 5 percent.

In the face of the stricter laws against smoking, smokers are venting their grievances. "Smokers pay about 4 trillion won in cigarette-related taxes annually, yet our rights as consumers are largely ignored," Mr. Han said. For example, among the many taxes on each pack of cigarettes, smokers pay 4 won toward garbage disposal. While that amounts to nearly 10 billion won annually expressly for disposing of cigarette butts, according to Mr. Han, there are too few garbage bins on the streets. "If I want to smoke outside, there is no place to throw away the cigarette butt," he complained.

"As long as the government allows the production of cigarettes, the rights of the consumers should be protected," Mr. Han said. That includes providing regulations for well-ventilated smoking areas, according to him. Currently, there are no standards for air quality in enclosed smoking areas, exposing smokers to discomfort and added health risks.

Enjoying his cigarette outside his office in Myeong-dong, downtown Seoul, Kim Ki-taek, 35, said although he does not like the dirty looks that some passers-by give him, he would rather smoke outside. "The smoking area in my building is too filled with smoke and my eyes sting," he explained. While the new plan would impose a fine of 5 million won on building owners who do not provide smoking areas, Mr. Han is skeptical about its enforcement. "That would be seen as encouraging smoking and I doubt that will be strictly applied."

by Kim Hoo-ran

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