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To all the rationalizations given to keep smoking — losing weight, calming nerves, passing the time — servicemembers in South Korea can add one more dubious incentive: Cigarettes are pretty cheap compared to stateside prices.

The going rate for a pack of smokes at Post Exchange stores varies from about $2.70 to $3.50, depending on the brand. Off-base, a pack costs $2.66 to $3.19.

Back home, cigarette packs range from $3.41 in South Carolina to $6.24 in New Jersey.

But bases in South Korea have special Korean snack bars aimed at making the Korean Augmentees to the U.S. Army serving alongside the Americans feel more at home. At the KATUSA snack bars, Korean-brand cigarettes go for a special rate of 1,400 to 1,500 won, or $1.49 to $1.59 a pack.

Suh Ok-hee, a supervisor for health promotion with the 18th Medical Command, says the cheaper prices are one of the reasons servicemembers say they keep smoking in South Korea.

“At the KATUSA snack bars, cigarettes are dirt cheap,” she said Monday during a telephone interview.

Suh is one of four health promotion coordinators in South Korea who run tobacco-cessation programs for servicemembers, their families and other Department of Defense workers. They offer weekly group meetings aimed at helping people adjust their lifestyle to a world without tobacco.

The classes help people avoid weight gain, handle stress and create different routines without cigarettes or smokeless tobacco, she said. Most people usually attend four, one-hour classes.

The program also includes health screenings and a discussion of medication options, such as nicotine gum or patches or Zyban, a prescription drug, that can help beat the addiction, she said.

The hardest part about quitting is conquering the physical addiction, Suh said. But behavioral patterns, such as taking work breaks or having a smoke after a meal, also are tough to break, she said.

Common withdrawal symptoms include headaches, dry mouth, trouble sleeping or concentrating, depression and irritability, other military health workers said. This discomfort leads many smokers to relapse, thinking that a cigarette will make them feel “normal” again.

Suh said her clients often say they re-start their habit while drinking alcohol with friends.

According to Suh, younger servicemembers in South Korea have an additional hurdle to climb when trying to quit: They can’t drive to meetings.

“The majority of our target population doesn’t have driving privileges,” she said. “Getting to a class is a problem.”

Suh and the other health specialists will travel to various bases to hold the meetings. They also will do special sessions for a larger unit when requested.

Currently, the specialist position in Area IV is vacant, but Suh and the other workers travel south when they can, she said.

Bryce S. Dubee and Hwang Hae-rym contributed to this story.


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