Wednesday, 3rd of November – National Unhealthy Choices

I thought of quoting John Lennon and Paul McCartney at the start of this post, but then I read the rest of the lyrics to ‘A Day in the Life.’ It really did not help.

I read the news today. Oh boy.

I love my new home of South Korea, and I also still love my home of birth in Aotearoa – New Zealand. I have no idea as to whether this was a coincidence or not, however, both nations had articles published today in national newspapers dealing with the issue of tobacco and cigarette laws. The recent decisions by government representatives are polar opposite in approach.

The news from South Korea.

The news from Aotearoa – New Zealand.

I am, usually, proud of my life in Korea, and enjoy telling friends and family of all the great aspects of living here. Foremost amongst these is usually food, as you will know if you read my very last post on this blog. Food is a topic to which I shall return further below in this post.

For now, however, I must say how I am not just completely and  bitterly disappointed in, but also disgusted by the law makers in South Korea. This country makes a point of encouraging a sense of national pride at any given opportunity, such as the development and achievement of healthy grown men chasing a soccer ball about a flat field. That is good.

But when it comes to something important, like the health of the citizens at a very basic level, the very people who should be making the most simple of changes apparently cannot even achieve a small w500 increase in price once a year. This seems completely tragic and quite simply strange to the point of being very crazy in a country which thus so effectively promotes the killing of its own citizens.

Yes, I completely understand the potential impact of using the word ‘crazy’ in this cultural context. I mean every bit of the implication. The law makers in the Republic of Korea – or rather those who influence them – should be completely ashamed at the extent to which they are effectively promoting the death and pain of so many of our neighbours in this our beautiful home on this peninsular.

According to this admittedly abstract and obtuse file, cancer has been the leading cause of death for at least the period between the years of 1983 and 2006. Within this file it is interesting to note the complete lack of a proportionate breakdown of different types of cancer. Nor is there any mention of what it is that may be causing its high rate of prevalence here. Three things which are interestingly included are (i) a list of eight measures or ‘components of ‘Cancer Control Programs’, the first of which includes ‘[an] anti-smoking program…” [sic], (ii) the admission of a lack of ‘evaluation methods’ or assessment indices’, and (iii) a disclaimer, in bold red letters, that “This publication does not necessarily represent the decisions or the stated policy of the World Health Organization.” Presumably this is an official document, although it is hard to tell. It is headed in capitals ‘The Republic of Korea’ and has links to the Korean and English language websites for the Ministry of Health and Welfare. If this is the best that they can do, then, it really makes me reflect on the value of higher taxes on the general standard of the health and welfare of society, at least in the areas of quality of anti-smoking lobbies and ministerial websites.

I am quite worried about my students at the school where I work. The male students see nothing wrong with smoking openly almost anywhere. And today, in a further ironic coincidence, for the first time I did see a female student smoking outside the main building. Two weeks ago I went to a nice new cafe down town to do some work and was shocked, not that people were, unfortunately, smoking inside a place where people eat and drink, but rather that the girls smoking there looked like they belonged in middle school uniforms. Even if they were boys it would have been disturbing, and actually, it often is. It is quite unsettling to see how young the boys are as they smoke openly around down town on weekends.

Yes, I quite realize that we can talk about making social pariahs of smokers and end up merely chasing people to secret hidden smoking spots. The girl’s toilets in the school where I used to work in Busan stank badly from the hall way whenever walking past. All male toilets where I work now stink most times I visit.

The thing is, making smoking overtly socially unacceptable actually IS effective in much the same way as being overweight is social unacceptable in this country. Smoking rates for women in Asian countries including Korea are significantly lower than for men even taking into consideration margin of error and range of distortion (ie. lying) in the surveys. What other reason for this difference in rates of smoking is there other than social acceptance for males and lack thereof for females? If this lack of social acceptance can be created for females, why cannot it also be created for males, much as we see it being done around the world in other countries recently by governmental bodies, even if by no-one else?

Fortunately or unfortunately, social pressure is a major aspect of cultural life in South Korea and is, therefore, given the cultural context, not just a legitimate and obvious approach to take, but in the case of smoking, a necessary obligation for anyone in a position of authority, moral or actual.

Failure of Korean lawmakers to oversee the annual increase in tax on cigarettes will, I gravely fear, rather than being beneficial for the poorer working citizens in this hopefully short-term time frame of economic down turn, actually harm them in a much worse and direct way as regards their health in the long term, and that will thus, of course, also have drastic and direct financial results for those same workers.

Even worse, it will mean that whole new generations of young smokers, including girls, will continue to be able to afford to establish the habit.

For the sake of my students then, I feel very, very sad that Korean government politicians have either decided for themselves – or been unfortunately influenced –  to not increase the tax on our nation’s absurdly cheap cigarettes.

Now, just in case anyone thinks I am out of place to talk about such an issue for a culture that is not obviously my own, I say two things:

1.) I have shared the very air Koreans in many corners of this country breathe for many years. I have worked, sweated, bled, laughed, and paid taxes for years here, and love the people and the place. I say the above out of concern for the people. I think smoking is quite simply a life or death issue. As far as life and death issues go, complaining of cultural imperialism is a bit pathetic. This issue really is about life and death,

as Korean media has reported already just this year:

smoking increases risk of suicide, and

it increases risk of Altzheimer’s disease, and this is

in a time of actual increase in the rate of smoking of men in Korea.

Even more than that, it is also about quality of life. Frankly, I am sick of having to put up with stinking, dangerously toxic fumes just because I walk into a shared bathroom. I do not think other students, teachers or citizens – non-smokers or not – should have to share carcinogens in the air in day to day life, and I do not think that the powers that be in this land should be given to openly encouraging what amounts to self-harm and suicide.

2.) I have equal concern about the people with whom I grew up in my ‘western’ country. The issue in NZ is less smoking, and more to do with food. I see little difference between ‘western’ (European decent) culture in NZ as in the UK, Canada, white South Africa or the USA. People in these lands see similar rates of, and diseases caused by obesity. Although some people have been working on making effective changes locally, the obesity ‘epidemic’  itself remains a disturbingly large issue.

Ann Cooper is the head of nutrition for Berkley, California schools. She threw out elementary school cafeteria junk food and replaced it with better options, but, she is still quite angry and inspirational when she talks about the size of the challenge of providing healthy food for students. She spoke to TED.com in 2007.

Others have talked at TED.com and elsewhere, before and since, about the link between commercial diets in the west and obesity and other western diet-related diseases such as diabetes, but few have been so direct and powerful as Jamie Oliver’s address upon receipt of his Prize wish speech earlier this very year.

I could happily eat Korean food for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and actually I often do eat Korean meals for lunch and sometimes dinner as well. It is healthy, quick, and cheap, and the average New Zealander’s diet would be vastly improved by simply including a few Korean meals a week. I dare say the average westerner’s diet would be many times healthier on a Korean diet almost 100% of the time (though I don’t know about all that sumgyubsal… and I would have to control my intake of hohduhk and bungoh pang…).

So, my final point is that I would really like to promote some kind of cultural exchange focused on these two issues. I hope for the best for peoples of both lands. Right now though, I do wish Lennon and McCartney had not had to include a line about smoking within the lyrics of ‘A Day in the Life.’ I just read the words today. Oh mate. It really doesn’t help.

* * * * * * *

Update #1: Now that it’s the day after I wrote that, I also find another piece was written yesterday which does make the link between both aspects of ill health. There are some great comments below the article, too.

Update #2: It’s good to see that within 24 hours, the NZ government cabinet has already approved the measures suggested. A smoke-free NZ within fifteen years. I’m looking forward to it! Now… where did I leave that chocolate…?!

Update #3: In the New York Times today is described the size of the struggle with the dairy industry against one of the main sources of saturated (unhealthy) fat: cheese.

Update #4: In the New York Times today is revealed the USA is finally catching up with other countries around the world in the insisting cigarette companies put warnings with pictures on a significant area of their packets of cigarettes. This further leaves the South Korean government unfortunately even further behind the developed world’s pack of nations in terms of the official concern shown for its citizens with regard to the effects of smoking on health.

The Huffington Post has a good representative range of some of the suggested pictured PSA labels here.

Update #5: Sunday, 14th of November – a fascinating update in the NYT, including the fact that Uruguay has the toughest anti-smoking measures in the world, and as a result is being sued by international cigarette company Philip Morris. The company is similarly attacking Brazil, Ireland and Norway.

Update #6: It’s strange how, once you start looking for something, you start noticing that thing even when you’re not looking for it: ‘myhealthynewsdaily.com‘ and ‘msnbc.com‘ news sites both featured some hard-hitting facts on smoking within the last couple of weeks.

Update #7: A friend just shared this small factoid from 2009 in the USA: “Republican Minority Leader John Boehner explains why he handed out bribes on the House floor“. Go on, have a guess!

Update #8: This report on the results of a recent survey just in from the WHO and Reuters [27/11/2010] on the impact of passive smoking.

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