OSAKA — Forget the bid for the 2008 Olympic Games or the opening of Universal Studios Japan. For those Osaka residents who have long suffered in the presence of cigarette smokers, a recent announcement by the city came as some of the best news in years.
Concerned about the public health costs associated with smoking, and how they are likely to rise as Osaka’s population ages, the municipal government said in mid-February that it was embarking on a comprehensive program to improve the health of residents. “I was so happy when Osaka said it wanted to reduce the number of smokers by half over the next 10 years and raise awareness of the dangers of cigarette smoking,” said Mariko Umemura, 32, an office worker in central Osaka, who works with three chain smokers.
“It’s horrible how rude and inconsiderate smokers are and amazing how little they understand the dangers (their habit poses) to others.”
Japan has often been called a smoker’s paradise, with comparatively little public education on the dangers of cigarettes and fewer legal restrictions on cigarette vending machines than in some other industrialized countries.
For years, the dangers of smoking were largely ignored by both the government and the public at large.
Statistics compiled by the municipal government in January show that of a sample taken among 150 Osaka smokers, only 80 percent knew smoking causes lung cancer, while only 35 percent knew it can lead to heart disease.
About 77 percent of female smokers said they were aware that smoking can lead to problems during pregnancy.
These statistics also confirmed what many people from other parts of Japan have been saying about Osaka smokers, namely that they are more numerous than elsewhere. About 27 percent of all Japanese smoke, but that figure is 36 percent for Osaka residents.
The percentage of smokers between the ages of 20 and 50 was particularly high. Nationally, about 34 percent of all adults in this age group smoke, but in Osaka the figure is 40 percent.
Based on another recent sampling of 1,500 Osaka residents, the city calculated that 53.6 percent of Osaka males and 21 percent of females smoke. They want to reduce these figures to 26 percent and 10 percent, respectively, by 2010 as part of its health improvement program.
In order to accomplish this goal, the city is recommending that public education on the dangers of tobacco begin at an early age, and that local communities strive to create an environment that discourages underage youths from taking up smoking.
Furthermore, Osaka is proposing that those currently smoking who want to quit be provided with support through local community health centers, and that new health services be established to help people kick the habit.
While some critics note that the city’s plan avoids mentioning some items, such as further restrictions on cigarette vending machines, most welcomed the effort as one that was long overdue.
“It’s a start. Let’s hope the city is serious,” said Hideyuki Matsuo, who is involved in several local groups trying to raise public awareness of the dangers of smoking.
One of the reasons the campaign against smoking in Osaka has been slower to take off than in Tokyo is said to be because many local businesses, especially restaurants and coffee shops, have been reluctant to establish no-smoking sections out of fear of losing business.
There are signs, however, that this is beginning to change, thanks to a new form of competition.
“Look at the popularity of Starbucks coffee shops in the major business districts over the past year or so,” said Chikako Tetsuzawa, an economist who works for a financial firm in the city’s Umeda district. “Many people were tired of taking coffee breaks in small, stuffy coffee shops filled with chain-smoking old men and young women.”
Osaka officials admit they do not have all of the details about the campaign to reduce smoking worked out yet, especially how much money can be spent on implementing the program and providing assistance. But, as Umemura and Matsuo note, many citizens believe the situation can only get better.
“I don’t agree with the extreme measures taken by some countries, like America, against smokers,” Matsuo said. “But Osakans have become lazy and indifferent to the problem of smoking and the city has a responsibility to do something.”