North Korea, one of the last bastions of free, unhindered smoking, a country where just about every adult male can and does light up almost anywhere he pleases and where leader Kim Jong Un is hardly ever seen without a lit cigarette in his hand, is now officially trying to get its people to kick the habit.
It’s a battle Pyongyang has tried before and won’t easily win, especially since, beyond some stepped-up propaganda, it doesn’t appear to have a lot of funding. But this time around, the effort does have one big thing going for it: the increasingly vocal support of North Korean women, virtually none of whom smoke.
Ri Yong Ok, a 57-year-old pharmacist whose heavy-smoking husband nearly died of lung cancer, is leading the charge.
“I’ve been on TV, my whole family has been on TV, so everyone knows who I am,” Ri, flanked by no-smoking posters, told The Associated Press during an interview at the small anti-smoking centre she manages in Pyongyang. The centre, one of only 11 in all of North Korea, has something you almost never see in the North — a no-smoking sign placed prominently above its entrance.
“I’m optimistic that we can get people to stop,” she said. “Our goal is education.”
The potential health benefit to the nation could be tremendous.
Ri estimated about 54% of adult male North Koreans smoke — a higher figure than the 43.9% given by a World Health Organization report released at the end of 2014. Smoking is a social taboo for women and it’s illegal for anyone under the age of 17.
North Korea has toyed with the idea of pushing harder to get smokers to kick the habit before — Ri’s humble anti-smoking centre has been around since 2007. But it has stepped up its effort to at least provide more education of smoking’s health risks since an anti-smoking decree was made by Kim in April.
The start of the new drive prompted speculation in the foreign media that Kim himself had quit, since cigarettes were conspicuously missing from his hands in photos carried by the state media of his “on-the-spot guidance” visits around the country from around that time.
The buzz didn’t last long. He was pictured smoking on a visit to a children’s camp in June.
North Korea joined the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control in 2005 and dutifully holds events on World No Tobacco Day every year. The infomercial on Ri and her family was broadcast by state-run TV on that day this year and a big anti-smoking poster for no smoking day hangs in her offices.
According to recent government reports, the country has reduced the amount of land devoted to growing tobacco. In May, state media quoted a Health Ministry official saying the ratio of male smokers in 2013 was down 8 percent when compared with 2009 and “the number of nonsmokers is remarkably increasing with each passing day.”
“I would guess about 300 people visit smoking cessations centers a day, nationwide,” in a country with a population of about 24 million, Ri told AP.
Health warnings are now required on cigarette packs, but remain inconspicuously placed in small lettering on the side of most and only state that smoking can be harmful to the health. A similar warning is posted in the smoking area at Pyongyang’s new international airport, though most smokers probably don’t see it — they just go outside.
Even so, the media campaign and pressure from wives, daughters, mothers and girlfriends does appear to be paying off, at least a little.