Seoul toughens smoking ban in restaurants

SEOUL - Smoking will be prohibited in restaurants, bakeries, coffee shops and bars with a surface area of 150 square meters or larger nationwide starting from Dec. 8, the Ministry of Health and Welfare said Tuesday.

Indoor as well as outdoor areas of public buildings such as hospitals, libraries, day-care centers, government offices and commercial complexes will also be designated as smoke-free zones, the ministry said.

The amendment to the National Health Promotion Act was endorsed at the Cabinet meeting presided over by President Lee Myung-bak on Tuesday morning.

"The government has decided to impose stricter rules on smoking as it found limits in protecting the public health with the current laws," the ministry said.

Starting this Saturday, about 80,000 restaurants including those in expressway service stop areas should declare themselves as smoke-free eatery zones and assign a separate unit for smoking customers. For those who break the law, the government will impose penalties ranging from 1.7 million (S$1,100) to 5 million won according to the number of violations.

Not only restaurant owners but also customers will be fined 100,000 won if they smoke outside designated smoking areas, officials added.

Smokers may have to search for smoking rooms whenever they enter public buildings as the new law prohibits smoking even in their parking lots, rooftops and gardens.

The new law obligates building owners to install a smoking unit outside and 10 meters away from the entrance of their buildings.

The new anti-smoking law also includes banning the use of names referring to flavors added to cigarettes. Tobacco companies should remove words like menthol, mojito, cherry, aroma, coffee and apple mint from tobacco products, also as of Dec. 8. Tobacco companies in Korea said they received guidelines from the Ministry of Health a month ago and replaced the names of existing flavored tobacco products.

"We will follow the government's new rule by changing the names of flavored tobacco products," said an official at KT&G, the country's largest tobacco maker.

Amid mounting calls for improving public health and a clean environment, the Korean government has been expanding smoking-ban policies in recent years, while keeping the price of cigarettes substantially lower than other advanced countries.

Officials say the latest move is just a part of a broader and stricter anti-smoking rules to be imposed in the future.

The government plans to ban smoking in smaller restaurants with spaces larger than 100 square meters in 2014 and to all restaurants, regardless of size, in 2015.

Smoking in PC rooms or internet cafes will also be prohibited starting in June next year.