Smoking in South Korea is similar to other developed countries in the OECD, with a daily smoking rate of 19.9% in 2013 compared to 20.9% in Germany and 19.3% in Japan. However, male smoking is among the highest at 36.2% while female smoking by far the lowest at 4.3%. The South Korean government aims to reduce the male smoking rate to the OECD average of 29% by 2020 by making the country one of the world's most difficult places to smoke, using a combination of significant price hikes, mandatory warning photos on cigarette packs, advertising bans, financial incentives and medical help for quitting along with a complete smoking ban in public places including all bars, restaurants and cafes.
South Korea enforced strict smoking bans in public places since July 2013, with fines of ₩100,000 won on any spotted smoker and up to ₩5 million won on shop owners not following the law. It is illegal to smoke in all bars and restaurants, cafes, internet cafes, government buildings, kindergartens, schools, universities, hospitals, youth facilities, libraries, children's playgrounds, private academies, subway or train stations and their platforms and underground pathways, large buildings, theaters, department stores or shopping malls, large hotels and highway rest areas. The strict bans came into force gradually beginning with a ban on places larger than 150 square meters in 2012, extended to 100 square meters in 2014, with a full-fledged complete nationwide ban on 1 January 2015.
Since 1 January 2015, South Korea has completely banned smoking on all bars, restaurants and cafes regardless of size, including any smoking rooms. Any spotted smoker must pay fines of 100,000 won and up to 5 million won on shop owners not obeying the law. Anyone can report a smoker via calling or sending a text message to a government hotline (in the case of Seoul, the number is 120) with their location address and authorities will raid the reported place, of which a picture of the offending smoker will be taken and fined 100,000 won. Disguised authorities also secretly check random places at random times for offending smokers.
Since 1 January 2015, tobacco prices have nearly doubled to an average of ₩4,500 KRW, and it is illegal to advertise misleading claims such as "light", "mild", "low tar" or "pure" on cigarette packs.
From December 2016, warning photos such as rotten teeth and black lungs will be mandatory on all cigarette packs.
Discussion is under way at the National Assembly to pass a law that will raise the prices every year pegged to inflation. The government will pass a law in 2015 to completely ban any form of advertising of cigarettes in convenience stores and make it illegal for tobacco companies to sponsor cultural or sport events.
Smoking is illegal and strictly prohibited in the following premises:
In addition to the nationwide ban laws, several cities designate the following areas must be smoke-free:
People who have successfully quit smoking will receive 50,000 to 150,000 KRW as a financial incentive from the government. A 12-week medical help program for quitting is provided at a heavily subsidised cost of 5,000KRW upon the first treatment, reduced to 3,000KRW thereafter. Smoking cessation aids such as bupropion, varenicline and nicotin patches are handed out for free at any participating medical center nationwide. Anyone in need of consulting smoking cessation can dial a hotline and consult a doctor or specialist.
Reports suggest that persistently high rates of smoking in the military contribute to the high incidence of male smoking, and negate the efficacy of anti-smoking measures, as many men start smoking during their mandatory 2-year military service. The Public Health Graduate School of Yonsei University completed a 13-year medical study on 1.2 million patients and found that about 73% of male smokers and 18% of female smokers contracted lung cancer. There is rising awareness of the health effects of tobacco. The economy of South Korea loses more than 10 trillion won a year in terms of health-care expenses and lost man-hours due to smoking-related illness.
Eight out of ten teenagers were found to think they should not smoke by looking at cigarette pack warning pictures. According to the Center for Disease Control, 83.1% of teenagers who know cigarette warning pictures responded that they thought smoking cigarettes should not be allowed to smoke. The health authorities have announced that they will replace the cigarette warning label in December and will include a picture symbolizing 'carcinogenicity' in cigarette-type electronic cigarette packs.
Local smoking etiquette in South Korea is influenced by Confucianism. For instance, smokers generally refrain from, or seek permission before lighting up in the presence of social superiors; a social superior could be a boss, professor, parent, grandparent, or teacher.