The World Health Organization says tobacco use is the leading preventable cause of death. In 2005, at least five million people in the world died from illnesses directly linked to smoking. WHO leaders call tobacco a scourge on public health, and they have made a global smoke-free environment one of their top priorities. Some of the most encouraging news in that fight is coming out of South Korea, as VOA Seoul Correspondent Kurt Achin reports.
At an office in Seoul, employees are meeting to talk about kicking the cigarette habit. Health workers from a government-funded clinic are teaching them about the dangers of smoking, and testing their breath to see how long it has been since they last lit up.
South Korea has won praise from the World Health Organization for bringing about one of the world's most dramatic drops in smoking rates. Now only about four out of 10 men smoke. That compares with an average of seven or eight out of every 10 men before the year 2000.
Many South Koreans say they had a serious change of heart about tobacco around 2002, when popular comedian Lee Joo-il went public with his terminal lung cancer, brought on by years of smoking. "Fellow citizens, don't let this happen to you. Stop smoking now," he told them.
Choi Hee-joo is the director general of the Bureau of Health Policy at the Ministry of Health. He says Seoul uses a two-pronged approach to stamping out cigarette use. "There are the 'non-price policies' – steps like limiting public smoking to specially designated areas, and cracking down on cigarette sales to minors,” he says. “But one of the most effective things we did was to start using taxes to raise prices on cigarettes. That helped to curb smoking, especially among lower-income groups."
Still, Choi says about 40,000 people die each year in South Korea from smoking-related illnesses. While smoking rates among men are falling, they are creeping up among women and children. He blames this change on a shift in marketing strategy by tobacco companies.
Lee Bok-geun is the director of the private Korean Association of Smoking and Health, and he gives seminars about the dangers of tobacco to students in schools. He shows graphic images of diseased lungs, cancerous tissue and other horrors of smoking. In hands-on experiments, students watch as a mannequin inhales. They see the residue trickle down into its body. "It is not meant to threaten them. It is meant to give them the means to reject temptation when it comes in the future," Lee explains.
Lee says anti-smoking efforts are gaining momentum in South Korea, but he hopes the government will pour more resources into encouraging people to quit. But he says even countries that do not have South Korea's wealth can take an important first step in fighting smoking. "The best place to start is to get the doctors to quit first. They are the ones who can lead by example, and they are the most persuasive in getting the public to understand the dangers."
The South Korean government is also enlisting businesses in the campaign. One proposal would subsidize efforts by private industry to help employees quit smoking.