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Smoking Cafes: Freedom of Smokers To Smoke vs Government's Health Policies

Nowadays on the streets, cigarette butts and foggy smoke is commonly still seen, and this of course, can have a detrimental effect on everyone’s health, regardless of whether they are smokers or not. Thus, for several years, the Korean government has adopted various policies to discourage smoking. Contrary to the government’s efforts, however, smoking cafés have started to appear throughout the country. As smoking cafés have appeared near Sungkyunkwuan University and Hyehwa station, Sungkyun Times (SKT) will now introduce smoking cafés, how they came about, and the controversies surrounding smoking cafés.

What is a Smoking Café?

Smoking Cafés

Smoking cafés are unique cafés, where people can freely smoke while drinking coffee. In contrast to ordinary cafés where places to smoke are limited, a smoking café allows people to smoke in all of the seats. One of the unique features of smoking cafés is that the staff of the cafés does not serve or make food. They only sell prepacked products while the customers enjoy the menu themselves through using the coffee machines located in the café. In the early days, the smoking café had a simple and boring interior design which gave an impression of an old smoking area. For example, one smoking café in Cheongju has a low ceiling, narrow spaces, and cheap coffee vending machines with just white tables and chairs. Moreover, due to poor ventilation facilities, when customers smoke, smoke from the cigarettes soon fill the entire café. Lately, however, the environment of the smoking café has improved and externally they seem similar to ordinary cafés. For example, a smoking café in Suncheon is famous for its pleasant and stylish interior design. The Smoking café in Suncheon designed the store with a high ceiling, trees, and a wooden interior near the lake. It broke people’s stereotype of a smoking café being
dirty with lots of smoke hanging in the air, and instead produced the image that smoking cafés can actually be clean and pleasant. In addition, smoking cafés today own expensive coffee machines that allow customers to drink decent coffee.

An Earlier Form of Smoking Café in Cheongju / blog.daum.net/hapymart

A Smoking Café in Suncheon with Trees and Wooden Interior / upkorea.net

Smoking cafés, due to these developments, are gaining popularity with an average of 50 to 100 customers visiting them per day and the number of smoking cafés is rapidly increasing to 50 places across the country.

Contributing Factors to their Appearance

These smoking cafés have appeared and gained popularity due to various factors.

- Government’s Policies on Banning Smoking

Since 2015, the Korean government has launched several policies to ban smoking in concern of people’s health. The Law for the Promotion of the Nation’s Health was amended for a strict antismoking policy. In specific, the government banned smoking in restaurant businesses including food restaurants and cafés. When this law was applied, Seoul had 1,241 areas where smoking was banned. Additionally, the government increased cigarette prices by more than \2,000 per pack. The government’s policies of limiting smokers instead of focusing on the co-living of both smokers and non-smokers, has started to encounter criticism from some people. Unlike non-smoking areas, smoking booths, where smokers are able to freely smoke, had only 26 places in Seoul, and among those 26, only six of them were made by the government. 20 of these smoking booths were built by private companies, and even these are being neglected by smokers because they are unsanitary with spit and trash all around.

- Formation of Public Opinion

In this situation, instead of limiting smokers and expanding nonsmoking areas, the idea of making legal spaces for smokers by dividing places for smokers with those of non-smokers is gaining in popularity. According to Realmeter, a company that conducts public opinion polls, 80.6% of non-smokers asked, agreed on the idea of increasing legal smoking areas while 77% of the smokers agreed. The rate of the non-smokers who agreed on increasing legal smoking areas was higher, because non-smokers hoped for a reduction of the negative effects from second-hand smoking through making legal smoking places. Smokers are also welcoming this because they can comfortably smoke in a society where they are treated in an unfriendly way by others when they smoke in public. With these ideas, smoking cafés have appeared as one of the unique business items that have gained in popularity within the overcrowded café market, meeting the public needs.

- Increase of Smoking Cafés with Effective Marketing

Moreover, smoking café owners are expanding their businesses with various marketing strategies. Firstly, they emphasize that smoking cafés can start-up with little capital required. There is no need for a kitchen because the staff does not have to cook. A minimum amount of money, only for the interior and ventilation system, is needed. Secondly, self-service is possible. Smoking cafés only have to install vending machines or coffee machines and can be operated with unmanned systems. In other words, smoking cafés do not need professionals for making food or drink, which will reduce the cost of labor. Lastly, the smoking café emphasizes that it is a place for smokers, where smokers are allowed to freely smoke freely and comfortably. These marketing strategies have led to a rapid increase in smoking cafés.

Smoking Cafés’ Evasion of Law

The factors above have caused smoking cafés to become a lot more popular. On the other hand, a smoking café has lots of problems to deal with. Among the various issues that a smoking café might face, the most fundamental problem of a smoking café is dodging the law.

Banning Smoking in Ordinary Cafes / etoday.co.kr

Original Cafés

Many ordinary cafés belong to restaurant businesses where the staffs cook food and make drinks depending on the customer’s choices. The Food Sanitation Law has prohibited smoking in anywhere that there is cooked food. Therefore, in order to fit the conditions of the Food Sanitation Law, ordinary cafés had to change existing smoking seats to ordinary seats and establish their own smoking booths in their cafés. Usually, establishing a smoking booth costs about \150 million to \300 million, and considering the store’s interior design, it can go up as high as \1,000 million. The ordinary cafés had to use additional costs and lose 10% of revenue after they were designated as a non-smoking zone.

Smoking Cafés

Despite the similar management system of smoking cafés with that of ordinary cafés, the Food Sanitation Law is not applied to smoking cafés because they are registered as an automatic food sales business instead of a restaurant business. Automatic food sales businesses include super markets and convenient stores where they sell complete products. This is the reason for smoking cafés selling only pre-packed products instead of cooking and serving fresh food. Generally, people do not smoke in convenient stores or super markets, even though they are not designated as non-smoking zones. Therefore, the government did not feel the necessity to include the automatic food sales business in nonsmoking zones within the law. The smoking café, however, used this loop-hole to start their businesses.

Fairness Problem

The smoking café’s registration as an automatic food sales business caused an issue of fairness problem between ordinary cafés and smoking cafés. Even though both cafés are similar in that people are able to enjoy coffee, the fact that one is a place where customers can smoke while the other is not due to different application of law may seem unfair. Smoking cafés can even give the misperception that every café allows its customers to smoke. Besides, some smoking cafés have changed their operation. At the initial operation of the business, in order to register the café as an automatic food sales business, the staff does not cook or make drinks. When they finish registration, however, some smoking cafés allow the staff to cook and serve food just like ordinary cafés. They provide excuses for staff cooking and making drinks as they are worried about the difficult instructions for customers and malfunction of the coffee machines. Persistent complaints regarding this issue from ordinary cafés have been brought up at the parliamentary inspection of the Ministry of Health and Welfare. Thus, this March, the Ministry of Health and Welfare announced that they will undertake a legal review to find out whether they can designate smoking cafés as non-smoking zones. Designating a smoking café as a nonsmoking zone, in fact, means the elimination of the smoking café industry, which would be hard to implement due to the various oppositions. Consequently, if banning a smoking café is difficult, then as a second-best solution, the safety problems as well as the facility problems that smoking cafés are facing should be solved.

Shoddy Facilities in Smoking Cafés

Smoking Cafés in South Korea

Smoking cafés in Korea often have shoddy facilities with a lack of standards on the establishment of facilities. Ordinary cafés are categorized into publicly used businesses which means it is obligatory for them to install fire extinguishers, water sprinklers, ventilation and other facilities. Smoking cafés which are externally and internally similar to an ordinary café are classified as retail businesses which do not require the same safety laws or obligatory facilities. This is a serious problem, because if there are no effective ventilation or safety facilities, smoking cafés will cause more harm to everyone near the smoking café. Furthermore, continuous smoke within a closed space can make nitrosamine, which is the most powerful cancer-causing agent in nicotine. It adheres to the surface of the walls and tables and concentrates it, while being accumulated on them. Nitrosamine, in its activated state, is the main cause of nicotine poisoning, lung cancer, skin cancer, and esophageal cancer. Therefore, if the problems are not solved quickly, more serious health and safety problems will arise.

Paid Smoking Rooms in Japan

Japan has good facilities for smoking rooms. There are several countries that operate smoking booths, but Japan is the only country operating them as a form of a smoking café with fees charged for entry. While the concept of South Korea’s smoking café is based on being able to smoke freely in a café, the concept of this paid smoking room in Japan is paying and entering a smoking booth with good facilities which include coffee vending machines. Since it is just entering a smoking booth, there is no evasion of laws or insufficient standards on installing facilities. They instead simply follow the rules of the smoking booth or smoking room. The most outstanding feature of this place is that it has cutting-edge ventilation that has been designed to prevent the smoke flowing towards the non-smoking zone. Additionally, a pipe system that filters water from cigarettes and circulates the water into pure water is also effective in maintaining a safe and pleasant environment in the smoking room. Finally, photo catalysis wall paper, which causes a chemical reaction when light is received, has deodorization functions that maintain the clean environment. This paid smoking room is a result of smokers who are willing to reject the actions that go against the public order and public benefits, and accept charges to use smoking spaces.

A Smoking Booth in Japan / news.sbs.co.kr

These days, people are showing opposite reactions towards smoking cafés. Some view smoking cafés as the final method for smokers who desperately wish to smoke in a more comfortable space while others view smoking cafés as a counter action towards the government’s policies on health. They argue that smoking cafés should not be banned. However, it would be too complex to ban smoking entirely. Both smokers and non-smokers, therefore, have to take serious action from now on to solve the safety problems that smoking cafés have.

문소희  msohee123@naver.com

<저작권자 © THE SUNGKYUN TIMES, 무단 전재 및 재배포 금지>

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