Smoking on the jobSitting at a desk, inhaling deeply from a cigarette, Lee Jung-chan, 41, scribbles a few words on a notepad. His stress level would appear to be at its maximum, because he lights up another cigarette before finishing the first. Now he holds one in each hand.
He switches from the cigarette on the left to the one on the right, then back to the left, each time taking in another deep drag. Slowly letting the smoke out through his nostrils, he gives a slight approving nod and a grunt.
“This is good.”
Mr. Lee is at work, and he’s not taking a cigarette break. Working in the quality control department at Korea Tobacco & Ginseng, which produces most Korean cigarettes, his job is to weed out cigarettes that don’t meet the company’s standards.
Mr. Lee works at the company's Sintanjin factory in southern Chungcheong province, one of the company’s five factories in Korea. His typical day starts at 9:30 a.m. and ends at 5:30 p.m. But his job does not consist simply of smoking and puffing all day long.
“That would be very unhealthy, you know?” he says with a hint of amusement.
The science of identifying the bad apples in a batch of cigarettes has evolved with time, and Mr. Lee gets a great deal of help from machines. He personally smokes only six work-mandated cigarettes per day.
Like any manufacturing company, KT&G employs a quality control process ― ironic though that may seem, considering that a cigarette that meets company standards will still cause cancer. It’s the job of Mr. Lee and nine other employees of the company’s quality control department to see that these standards are met.
The factory produces about 6,800 cigarettes per minute. Every day, Mr. Lee and his colleagues test random samples from each brand of cigarette being manufactured.
“There are several criteria that we look for,” he says. “Weight, circumference and the right amount of tobacco in each cigarette are some basic things that we measure.” With a dismissive hand gesture, he adds, “But that’s a job for the machines.”
According to Mr. Lee, the most important part of evaluating a cigarette can be done only by a human being.
“When I test a cigarette, it’s the taste and the right feeling when I inhale a smoke that counts,” he says. “A machine can’t articulate that feeling.”
Mr. Lee has been working for KT&G for 14 years, but has only been a tester for the last three. Each quarter, a test is administered for employees who want to work in quality control. Each candidate has to smoke several cigarettes ― some of which have been altered in various ways.
Some, for instance, might not be the right weight. If a cigarette contains less tobacco than it should, a tester should be able to notice the difference.
Testers work in shifts, around the clock, so that the factory’s product is constantly being checked. The designated tester uses machines as well as his own skills.
Pointing at a machine that looks like it could have come from a spaceship ― it seems to be smoking an entire pack of cigarettes at once ― Mr. Lee explains, “This is our ‘smoking machine.’ Its name explains its purpose.”
According to Mr. Lee, the “smoking machine” measures resistance when the smoke from a cigarette is being inhaled. Mr. Lee says the machine plays an important role in maintaining quality. “Through our research, we have found out that if a cigarette burns too fast or too slow it's a cause for dissatisfaction.”
When it comes to the human element, there are rules that Mr. Lee and the other testers have to follow. They’re prohibited from drinking coffee or anything else 30 minutes before a test, so as not to influence the taste buds. Washing hands with soap is also a no-no, because the aroma could influence a tester’s judgement.
The testing laboratory consists of a large room to which two smaller rooms are attached. On the walls of the main room are guidelines for the testing process. A chart with a big picture of a tongue, labeled “aroma wheel,” hangs in the middle of the room. “From citrus to sulfur-like taste, it's all written down there,” says Mr. Lee.
A single cigarette is tested in 14 categories, ranging from aroma to appearance. The testers are reluctant to give away all their trade secrets, though. Hesitantly, Song Ji-young, another tester, says that testing is much harder than it looks.
“We don’t just inhale,” Mr. Song said. “There is a specific method.”
Last year, the death of the famous comedian Lee Ju-il from lung cancer became a catalyst for a nationwide smoking-cessation campaign. Since then, many employers in Korea have made it a policy to maintain smoke-free work environments.
KT&G is no exception to this trend. The company allows smoking only in specific areas.
Temptations are everywhere, however. The company’s cigarette packs are easily found in the workplace, on top of desks or in drawers.
“Hmm... I have never given much thought to that, but I don’t think I smoke more just because I work here,” says Song Dong-wook, who also works in the quality control department.
Mr. Lee agrees. “I don't have any special insurance regarding my health, and I think it's the same with the others who work here.”
But he acknowledges that the six cigarettes he’s paid to smoke per day ― two for each brand he tests, one of them the standard to which the sample is being compared ― aren’t his entire daily intake.
So how many cigarettes does he smoke per day, besides those work-related ones?
“I don't know,” says Mr. Lee. “I never counted. I just know it's hard to quit.”
by Brian Lee