Smoker’s use of neutral zones leads to debate

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Smoker’s use of neutral zones leads to debate

Kim Deok-hun, a 47-year-old office worker, had an altercation with a restaurant employee in Gwanghwamun Square, central Seoul, when he smoked in an alleyway 30 meters (98 feet) from the restaurant on Monday.

“You’re not allowed to smoke here. Go to a smoking area,” yelled an employee of the restaurant. “It smells, so go somewhere else and smoke.”

Kim, who was offended by the employee’s aggressive tone, fired back, “This isn’t even a non-smoking area so you have no right to tell me not to smoke here.”

The place where Kim had an argument is what smokers call a “smoking point,” where most office workers come and smoke. It is a phenomenon that surfaced after most areas in Gwanghwamun Square became non-smoking zones. The issue, however, is that when they smoke in that alleyway, the smell of cigarette smoke wafts over to nearby restaurants. Because most alleys are only about 5 meters wide, there are occasions where passersby complain of secondhand smoke.

Recently in Eunpyeong District, northern Seoul, for instance, a young mother was slapped by a middle-aged man after asking him to stop smoking in a non-smoking zone. The incident has stirred controversy regarding smoking in the streets.

The middle-aged man was at the time smoking near a subway station exit, which is a non-smoking zone, while the young mother was waiting for a traffic light to turn green so that she could cross the street with her 7-month-old daughter, who was in a stroller.

As the government has been expanding non-smoking zones across the nation, smokers have been struggling to secure their rights. As a result, a disagreement has surfaced over whether a neutral zone should be considered a smoking zone or a non-smoking zone.

According to a survey of 2,853 Seoul citizens conducted by the Seoul city government last year, 91 percent of respondents reported being affected by smoking in neutral zones such as alleys (63.4 percent) or building entrances (17.3 percent).

Seoul has a total of 247,000 non-smoking zones as of July of this year. There were 670 outdoor non-smoking zones in 2011, but that figure increased to 17,000 in just five years. In contrast, there are only 34 areas in Seoul that are designated as outdoor smoking zones.

Because of the increase in non-smoking zones, it has become common for smokers to gather in neutral zones. The problem, however, is that while smokers think that they are allowed to smoke in places that are not officially designated as non-smoking zones, non-smokers tend to think that smoking should only be permitted in smoking zones.

“If a place is not designated as a non-smoking zone, it is legally acceptable to smoke in those areas,” stated an official from Seoul Metropolitan Government. “But we are hoping that people will come to see crowded places as non-smoking zones.”

“Smokers need more consideration for those around them, who may be affected by secondhand smoke, while non-smokers need to stop branding smokers as some sort of criminals,” said Koo Jeong-woo, a professor of sociology at Sungkyunkwan University. “This issue cannot be resolved without mutual respect and consideration for each other.”

BY JEONG JIN-WOO, KIM NA-HAN [lee.soowhan@joongang.co.kr]

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