The South Korean government tried to scare smokers into quitting — but a fashion trend erupted

SEOUL, South Korea — At lunchtime, it takes only seconds of loitering outside a Seoul-area college or office building to see large circles of men — young and old — smoking cigarettes together. It’s a problem that the South Korean government expects to spend more than $130 million fighting in 2018, but they’re currently at odds with a new fashion trend: cigarette cases.

Much like cell phone cases, these cigarette box covers usually feature emojis, popular cartoon characters from South Korea’s Kakao messaging app or knockoff logos of well-known luxury fashion brands. Built to perfectly fit the average South Korean cigarette box, all one has to do is slip their cardboard carton into it and forget all of the government-mandated photos depicting cancer or warnings of early deaths.

“Everyone’s buying it, because it can hide those [warnings],” said Lee Bong, the owner of a cell phone accessory shop in Seoul’s youth-centered Hongdae district. “It has been a major fashion trend for about a year now. I’ve been selling the cases in my store since then.”

Kelly Kasulis/Mic
Kelly Kasulis/Mic

It’s no secret that masculine smoking culture makes cigarettes an especially tough habit to kick in South Korea. An estimated 40.7% of Korean men smoke, according to a 2016 survey, compared to about 4% of Korean women (female smokers are often stigmatized). South Korea has one of the highest male smoking rates in the developed world — and for men, the habit usually has its roots in the nation’s roughly two-year, compulsory military service. One 2012 study found that about 92% of Korean veterans have smoked at least 100 cigarettes in their lifetime, while 38% said they felt “explicit social pressure” to smoke.

To curb the widespread addiction, the government rolled out some of its strongest anti-smoking regulations yet in 2015: The minimum price per pack was raised from approximately $2.35 to $4.22, with an added rule that the price would be adjusted for inflation over time. Advertisements for cigarettes were banned from convenience stores — the easiest place to buy them — and the government increased their funding for anti-smoking programs. They also required that boxes have gruesome “warning pictures” of people with blackened gums or yellow teeth or scarred necks — a strategy that is supported by much research and is already legally mandated in at least 105 countries and territories. (In the U.S., the cigarette lobby has so far fended off such images from its packaging.)

“In South Korea, the smoking rate for men is especially high, but this phenomenon is a complex issue,” said Park Sung Woo, head of cigarette-related programs at the South Korean Ministry of Health and Welfare. “In the past, the government made and sold cigarettes to the public — they had a monopoly on it. Now, regulations have began to tighten, but there were no regulations on cigarettes before year 2000.”

Kelly Kasulis/Mic

But despite the 2015 regulations, South Korea saw cigarette sales rise by 14% in the first six months of 2016. By then, the cases had become a trend and Seoul’s most trafficked youth districts began to sell them on racks and bins, next to the usual keychains and earrings. Online marketplaces showed models posing with them and smiling.

Basically, it appears that the cigarette market — and its consumers — reacted the best way they knew how.

“There used to be only warning statements with text. So people hated it when the disgusting cancer photographs were included,” said Lee, a shop owner also in Hongdae who declined to give his first name. “For younger people, these cigarette cases have become a reactive trend.”

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Kelly Kasulis/Mic
Kelly Kasulis/Mic

For the health conscious, the good news is that Korean smoking rates have generally declined over the last few decades. Park says that the Ministry of Health and Welfare is aware of the cigarette case trend, and he’s optimistic that it’s already starting to taper off.

“Smoking is seen as a disease here,” he said. “It’s very hard to quit on your own. It is not a personal problem. Not being able to stop smoking doesn’t mean people don’t have a willingness too — it means that nicotine is very strong and addictive.”

Jisoo Hong contributed to this report.

March 16, 2018, 11:53 a.m.: This story has been updated.