Pyongyang: North Korea, one of the last bastions of free, unhindered smoking, a country where just about every adult male can and does light up almost anywhere he pleases and where leader Kim Jong Un is hardly ever seen without a lit cigarette in his hand, is now officially trying to get its people to kick the habit.
It's a battle Pyongyang has tried before and won't easily win, especially since, beyond some stepped-up propaganda, it doesn't appear to have a lot of funding. But this time around, the effort does have one big thing going for it: the increasingly vocal support of North Korean women, virtually none of whom smoke.
Ri Yong Ok, a 57-year-old pharmacist whose heavy-smoking husband nearly died of lung cancer, is leading the charge. "I've been on TV, my whole family has been on TV, so everyone knows who I am," Ri, flanked by no-smoking posters, told The Associated Press during an interview at the small anti-smoking center she manages in Pyongyang.
The center, one of only 11 in all of North Korea, has something you almost never see in the North a no-smoking sign placed prominently above its entrance.
"I'm optimistic that we can get people to stop," she said. "Our goal is education."
The potential health benefit to the nation could be tremendous.
Ri estimated about 54 percent of adult male North Koreans smoke a higher figure than the 43.9 per cent given by a World Health Organisation report released at the end of 2014.
Smoking is a social taboo for women and it's illegal for anyone under the age of 17.
North Korea has toyed with the idea of pushing harder to get smokers to kick the habit before Ri's humble anti-smoking center has been around since 2007. But it has stepped up its effort to at least provide more education of smoking's health risks since an anti-smoking decree was made by Kim in April.
The start of the new drive prompted speculation in the foreign media that Kim himself had quit since cigarettes were conspicuously missing from his hands in photos carried by the state media of his "on-the-spot guidance" visits around the country from around that time.
The buzz didn't last long. He was pictured smoking on a visit to a children's camp in June.
North Korea joined the World Health Organization's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control in 2005 and dutifully holds events on World No Tobacco Day every year.