Citizen attempts to end teen smoking fall flat

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Citizen attempts to end teen smoking fall flat

When Lee, 36, went for a walk near her home in Osan, Gyeonggi, she found it disturbing to see two teenagers smoking in a remote part of the apartment complex, especially since she was with her 3-year-old son. Lee felt the urge to scold them for their illegal smoking, yet decided to walk by with her head down, avoiding eye contact, worried that they might do something to her or her child if she spoke up.

Kim, 67, was heading home from a nearby shopping center in Seodaemun district, western Seoul, when he bumped into three teenagers smoking on a street corner. Kim had been in an anti-smoking program for a week and felt like teaching them about the harmful effects of smoking, but decided not to. “As a senior adult,” he said, “I felt the need to guide the youth, but it felt uncomfortable because I didn’t really know what to do.”

On the other hand, there are cases in which adults do not just walk by and the conflict that results can be quite violent.

Last August, 57-year-old Jang and two of his friends saw two high school students smoking in Dongdaemun District, central Seoul. The three adults shouted at the students, “Put out those cigarettes, you bastards!”

When the students did not comply, Jang took out a box-cutter from his pocket and threatened them. A fight ensued and Jang and his friends were later arrested on the scene.

In Suwon, Gyeonggi, a university student in his 20s was hospitalized for two weeks after being assaulted by teens for warning them not to smoke.

The number of adults who report teenagers to police for smoking is rapidly rising. Rather than confronting the teenagers himself, a citizen in Anyang, Gyeonggi, reported two middle school students to police last Christmas. The policeman who came to the scene took the two students to the police station, gave them a warning and sent them home.

As more teenagers are starting to smoke at an early age, a generational dispute is simmering between senior adults and teenagers who smoke. Experts advise people to avoid direct confrontation and let police handle the situation.

“For teenagers, who usually think only about themselves, it’s very easy to take an adult’s preaching as unjust interference and rebel against them in defiance,” said Kwak Keum-joo, a psychology professor at Seoul National University.

As this generational conflict worsens, starting Jan. 4, Gyeonggi Nambu Provincial Police Agency started actively promoting the idea of reporting such events to police on its Facebook account. Because official police reports do not cover incidents of teenage smoking, it’s hard to get an exact figure on how prevalent the problem is. But one police officer said, “More adults are reporting cases of teenage smoking and so we began promoting the idea on social media.”

According to Article 50 of the Juvenile Protection Act, after police take teenagers to the police station for smoking, they must contact a guardian, usually a parent, or their school, who will be in charge of deciding whether and how to discipline the teenager. Police are, however, responsible for tracking down the person who illegally sold them the cigarettes.

Under the current law, those who sell cigarettes to minors can be fined up to 30 million won ($25,600) or imprisoned for up to three years. The Tobacco Business Act can order the suspension of a business for up to a year if it sells cigarettes to minors.

An online survey of teenage health, conducted in 2016 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, found that 9.6 percent of male students between the age of 13 to 18 smoke. Even without counting the rising number of smokers in elementary school, one in 10 minors smoke. Among those who said they smoke, 71.4 percent answered that they had bought a pack of cigarettes within one month of the survey.

According to Kwak Dae-kyung, a police administrative professor at Dongguk University, the need to avoid direct conflict with smoking teenagers goes both ways, as you could become either the victim or the aggressor of a physical fight, both of which could lead to trouble.

“Even if the adults meant well in telling off the teenagers,” said Kwak, “if the assaulted children want the adult penalized, then the adult has to be charged with a criminal offense. Because an adult may also become an assault victim, it’s best to simply report it police.”

BY KIM MIN-WOOK [yoon.soyeon@joongang.co.kr]
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