Gutting the effort to clamp down on passive smoking

A counterproposal being considered by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party on measures against passive smoking will effectively gut the health ministry’s efforts to tighten regulations on indoor smoking in public spaces. While the health ministry plan in itself has been watered down from its original version, fierce opposition from the tobacco lobby within the LDP has kept the government from submitting the proposal to the Diet. The new smoking regulations are intended as a measure for Japan to comply with the goal of a “tobacco-free” Olympics as it prepares to host the 2020 Games in Tokyo. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who seems to care so much about the Olympics that he wants to have the Constitution amended by that year, should step in to resolve the gridlock so that the nation’s control on smoking will fall more in line with international standards.

Under attack from the LDP’s tobacco lobby is the draft amendment to the law on promoting public health put forward in March by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry. Designed to reduce people’s passive exposure to tobacco smoke, the legislation will ban smoking on the premises of such public facilities as hospitals and schools, and prohibit indoor smoking in government buildings. Restaurants, hotels and offices must be made smoke-free, but proprietors will be allowed to create smoking rooms. However, opposition from related industries to its initial plan forced the ministry to exempt small-scale bars, defined as those with a floor space less than 30 sq. meters.

Passive smoking is deemed a serious hazard to public health. The health ministry estimates that each year 15,000 people die of illnesses caused by passive smoking, even as the ratio of smokers to nonsmokers in the population has reached record lows. A World Health Organization framework convention on smoking regulations, which Japan ratified in 2004, calls on participant nations to take effective steps to protect people from passive exposure to tobacco smoke in public spaces. But so far the government has only called for efforts to prevent passive smoking in public spaces in the law aimed at promoting people’s health, which carries no penalties for failure to act. Japan’s response to the problem has been given the worst grade possible by the WHO.

The government’s move to step up the efforts against passive smoking has been facilitated by the approach of the 2020 Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games. Based on an agreement between the WHO and the International Olympic Committee to aim for “tobacco-free” Olympics, host countries of recent games have introduced measures to prohibit smoking in public indoor spaces.

The health ministry’s plan, which imposes fines on those who violate the rules, takes a step back from the position of the WHO, which reject the effectiveness of smoking rooms and segregated smoking as measures to prevent passive smoking. But even that seems unacceptable to the LDP’s tobacco lobby, which is backed by related industries.

The health ministry proposal has effectively been shelved due to the opposition from the LDP tobacco lobby, which comprises some 280 Diet members. Earlier this month, the LDP’s opponents and supporters of the health ministry plan reportedly agreed on an alternative proposal, which essentially would allow restaurants and bars of a less than certain (yet unspecified) size to let their customers smoke as long as they hang “smoking” or “segregated smoking” signs on store fronts, while allowing larger establishments to create smoking rooms. That would further deviate from the WHO standards and its effects on preventing passive smoking would be in doubt. It’s not clear whether talks between the LDP and the health ministry to reconcile their differences would go anywhere. The LDP lawmakers should rethink their opposition, and the health ministry should not strike an easy compromise.

Restaurant and bar operators are against a ban on smoking in their establishments on the grounds it would drive their customers away. But various surveys give no clear data suggesting that sales at such establishments decline when they go nonsmoking. And if all establishments are made smoke-free with the exception of small bars, as in the health ministry plan, they will be on an equal competitive footing as far as smoking rules are concerned. Opponents to the plan should bear that in mind.

Some of the LDP opponents to tighter rules against smoking in public spaces argue that punishing people for smoking infringes on their freedom. People’s right to smoke may need to be respected, but that should be weighed against the health risk to which smoking in public spaces will expose others.