Every time our family sits down in a restaurant in Japan, my 11-year-old sniffs the air with disgust. He waves a hand through the cigarette haze and glares at the smokers all around us. “What’s the matter with these people?” he growled when we went out for a meal the other day. “Didn’t anyone ever teach them that smoking is bad for you?”
“Probably not. At least not in school,” I said. “Dad and I learned that lesson when we were kids. That’s because anti-tobacco education was introduced in American schools way back in the 1960s. But Japanese schools still don’t teach kids about the dangers of smoking.”
My younger son stopped playing with the menu and looked up. “Yes, they do,” he said. “The health teacher talked to us about tobacco today.”
This was news to me. “What did she tell you?” I asked.
“She showed us pictures of a healthy, pink lung. Then she showed us the lung of a smoker, which was gray. Smoke makes your lungs dirty. It’s hard to breathe and you might get cancer and die.”
“Sounds awful,” I said. “What else?”
“We learned that it’s hard to stop smoking once you start because there is a chemical in cigarettes that makes you want more and more. I think it’s called nikochin.“
“That’s right. It’s called nicotine in English, and it’s addictive. Did she tell you anything else?”
“Yes, that it’s bad for kids to be around smoke and it’s OK to ask people not to smoke around you.”
My older son shot a dirty look at the smokers at the next table. I wondered if he was going to say something, but just then the waitress came to take our order.
The next day I went to school to thank the health teacher. She was thrilled that a parent was interested and showed me the materials she used with my son’s second-grade class. She told me she’d be talking to the older kids later that week.
“I’ve tried for years to teach about tobacco, but it’s been hard to get time from the classroom teachers. They have so much else they need to cover. But it became easier last year, when kin’en shido (anti-smoking education) was finally added to the curriculum.”
Schools in other developed countries introduced anti-smoking education decades ago. But Japan only got serious about the issue in 1997, when an influential advisory committee said that kids should be taught about the risks of alcohol, tobacco and illegal drugs. That finally got the Education Ministry to agree to add the lessons to the national curriculum, which is updated every 10 years. While schools are not required to teach everything in the curriculum guidelines, teachers follow them very closely.
The health teacher rolled up her posters and sighed. “We do what we can at school, but kids get such mixed messages about tobacco. And they see so many adults smoking, often in their own homes.”
Well over 50 percent of Japanese children live with a smoker, according to estimates by the Council to Promote a Smoke-Free Environment for Children, an advocacy group that conducts surveys as part of an annual poster contest that drew entries from nearly 500 schools last year.
“When we started the poster contest 15 years ago, 75 percent of the kids said someone smoked at home,” Hiroshi Nogami, the group’s executive director, told me. “Now it’s between 60 and 70 percent. That’s still high, but it’s progress.”
The Osaka-based group believes kids are effective in carrying the anti-smoking message into the home. “Our first purpose is to prevent children from starting to smoke, but kids can influence their parents and encourage them to stop smoking. So it’s a positive change that anti-smoking education has been added to the curriculum. More teachers will teach it, and more children will hear the message at school.”
I explained all of this to my kids the next time we went out to eat. “What I still don’t understand,” my older son said, “is why Japan didn’t start teaching about tobacco when other countries did. Doesn’t the government care about kids’ health?”
“Maybe it was because tobacco was a government monopoly until 1985,” I suggested. “That means if you wanted cigarettes, you had to buy them from the government.”
My son was shocked. “The government was selling people something that’s bad for them?”
“It still is. The Finance Ministry owns two-thirds of the shares of Japan Tobacco, which is the only domestic producer of cigarettes. The government gets profit from those shares plus about 2 trillion yen a year from the tax on cigarettes.
“And look at this,” I said, picking up an empty cigarette box someone had left behind on the table next to ours. “Other governments require scary warnings on cigarette packages, but the one here in Japan is a joke.”
My kids bent their heads to read the tiny print and translated it like this: “Smoking might injure your health, so please don’t overdo it.”
Later, we looked on the Internet to find out what’s required in other countries. In the United States, the warning reads, “Smoking causes lung cancer, heart disease, emphysema and may complicate pregnancy.” Australia requires a series of messages, one of which is “Smoking kills!”
I explained that it’s illegal to sell tobacco to anyone under 20, but kids can get around this by buying cigarettes from vending machines. That’s the reason other countries banned cigarette-vending machines; Japan still has more than 500,000.
“You know what I think?” my older son said. “I think the government isn’t serious about protecting kids from smoke.”
I agree. To protect children, we need a ban on cigarette-vending machines. We need restrictions on advertising that targets young people. We need a proper warning on cigarettes. And, yes, we need no-smoking sections in restaurants. Anti-smoking education is a step in the right direction. But until the government implements serious measures to protect children from tobacco, it’s just blowing smoke.