Taxi drivers, passengers make case against passive smoking in cabs

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Taxi drivers and passengers demanded in court Tuesday better measures to curb passive smoking in cabs.

During the first session of a lawsuit brought before the Tokyo District Court, cabby Koichi Yasui, 71, said that 30 years of being subjected to passive smoking caused him to suffer serious heart problems, including angina pectoris.

But both his past employer and the Tokyo Taxi Center, an industry association that sets standards for taxis, not only ignored his plight but punished him for complaining, he said.

Yasui is one of three taxi drivers and 23 passengers who filed a lawsuit in July demanding 13.6 million yen in compensation from the government for failing to actively curb smoking in taxis.

“I would ask passengers to open a window if they wanted to smoke in my cab, and opened mine if they were unwilling to cooperate,” he told the court. “The Tokyo Taxi Center saw this as a violation of (its internal rule) of being courteous toward customers and made me write a letter of apology to the center.”

Yasui argued that statistics show that more than 70 percent of all people are nonsmokers, and that smoking in a taxi causes health damage not only to drivers but also to nonsmoking passengers, as it takes time before the vehicle is completely free of smoke after someone has lighted up inside.

“I want to clarify in court that the state has not taken the necessary steps to protect people’s health,” he said.

Yasui is now a self-employed cabby. His taxi in 1988 became one of Japan’s first authorized nonsmoking cabs.

According to the plaintiffs, the transport ministry eased regulations in 2000 to make it possible for taxi operators to introduce nonsmoking taxis.

In a May 2003 law aimed at boosting public health, taxis were also listed together with other modes of public transport and facilities such as buses, schools and hospitals where efforts must be made to curb passive smoking.

But the plaintiffs maintained that the law has done little to curb the problem because it is nonbinding, and taxi companies are reluctant to promote nonsmoking cabs, fearing they will lose passengers.

Eriko Maruyama, representing the passengers in the lawsuit, told the court that taxis are a public space used by people from all walks of life, and thus they should be “a safe and comfortable space” for everyone.

“It is also a means of transportation often used by the weak, including the sick, the old, or those who are pregnant,” she said. “But currently, only 1.2 percent of all taxis (in Japan) are nonsmoking, meaning if a person rides a taxi twice a month, the chance of encountering a safe, nonsmoking taxi comes only once in 3 1/2 years.”