(63) Choson Era’s Anti-Smoking Campaigns

By Yang Sung-jin

Last week, two U.S.-based cigarette producers announced the development of a tobacco curing method that could dramatically reduce the number of carcinogens in cigarettes.

While heavy smokers might be tempted to use the news as an excuse to go on smoking, anti-smoking activists remained unimpressed by the report, saying efforts to develop methods aimed at reducing the cancer-causing agents in cigarettes are laudable but not sufficient to justify downgrading the effort to eradicate smoking.

The age-old dilemma is well-known. Even “loyal” smokers know that smoking can cause various health problems, one of which is the much- dreaded lung cancer, but few smokers succeed in overcoming the habit, mainly because of its irresistible addictiveness.

It was in the early 17th century that the Choson Kingdom got its first whiff of tobacco. According to the Annals, people called tobacco “namcho” (grass from the south), a reference to the fact that it came from Japan.

As soon as this smoke-spewing substance landed in the hands of the Choson people in 1616, smoking spread rapidly throughout the nation. Only five years later, smoking became a national pastime.

When the nation was in the midst of a dry season, Choson rulers issued an order prohibiting smoking in hopes of preventing fires, testimony to the low level of public awareness of one of the less-publicized dangers of smoking.

The order came during King Sukchong’s visit on May 20, 1704, to the site of a ritual aimed at inducing rain. To show his sincere attitude toward the heavens, the king was accompanied by a very small number of attaches and officials.

“Be particularly cautious not to step on the rice and grains near the ritual site. And issue an order to ban the use of namcho and makolli (rice wine),” the king said.

Most Wicked Grass

In an article dated Aug. 4, 1638, a historiographer gave a detailed description of tobacco: “Namcho is a plant produced in Japan. A large leaf is about 7-8 chon (21-24 cm) in width. People cut tobacco grass into pieces and put it into a bamboo or other smoking pipes made of silver or tin to smoke the bitter and pungent stuff. It is said to be effective for curing phlegm and helping digestion. But habitual use harms the liver, thereby weakening eyesight.”

According to the article, tobacco first crossed the East Sea to Korea in 1616. In the earlier period, there were few people who had tried this revolutionary new substance.

But in the 1620s, the popularity of smoking grew to engulf the entire nation. One contemporary observer said, “Almost everybody smokes namcho. At parties, namcho has replaced tea and wine and some people are even engaged in the tobacco trade.”

“Being aware of its harmful effects, habitual smokers try to quit smoking, only to find themselves chained to namcho. So people call it the most wicked grass in the world,” the article added.

In November 1808, King Sunjo presaged the calls of today’s anti-smoking activists, saying, “The origin of namcho is not clear, but people say it helps digestion or it can cure phlegm, both of which I am not so sure about. In recent days, people have become addicted to smoking, regardless of age or gender. I wish to prohibit smoking altogether but there are no grounds for such legislation.”

Official Lee Kwang-ik said, “As far as I know, namcho came from Japan and it spread to China via Choson. At the time, a Chinese emperor strictly banned the import of namcho but it spread anyway when a person carried it inside a paintbrush to China.”

The king and officials racked their brains to minimize the damage resulting from smoking. Ranking official Hong Myon-sop said, “Namcho is widely cultivated in northwestern Hwanghae Province. At present, about half of its top quality land is used for growing namcho, which does more harm than good for the public.”

Hong went on to argue that it was unseemly for Choson people to offer namcho to guests. After weighing Hong’s arguments, the king expressed his willingness to legally ban the use of tobacco.

Tobacco Ban Goes Up in Smoke

But Hong opposed the idea, saying, “Many people love smoking despite the fact it has no beneficial effects on one’s health. Even if it is banned, people will do whatever they can to continue smoking, breaking the law in the process.”

Hong had a solution in mind. He suggested that the government should block people from cultivating namcho in their fields in hopes of eliminating smoking in the long term.

Apparently, Hong’s prescription for tackling smoking at the literal grassroots level proved fruitless in the face of tobacco’s economic benefits.

Tobacco was a profitable business for Choson merchants and diplomatic officials. In March of 1639, Yun Hoe, a member of the delegation who visited China, was caught by the Chinese transporting tobacco in a cart.

The incident prompted the Choson government to establish a law a year later that banned the smuggling of tobacco.

During the reign of King Injo, tobacco was included in the list of items which were sent to the emperor of Ching China along with honey, mulberry papers, mellowed persimmons, abalone and hard-shelled mussels.

In 1677, “precious” tobacco was used as a bribe. Military official So Chi was arrested on charges of offering namcho to a personnel officer in return for the promise of a higher position.

He may have been better advised to offer a regular supply of tobacco to the officer he was seeking to replace. While it surely would have taken awhile, he could feel secure in the knowledge that the recipient of his “gift” would die a premature death.