Kanagawa Prefecture can be Japan’s clean-air trailblazer

Dear Kanagawa Gov. Shigefumi Matsuzawa,

In April 2008, Kanagawa Prefecture created a plan for a law to ban smoking in public places, including restaurants and bars, to protect people from secondhand smoke. Apparently, due to strong opposition from restaurant and bar owners, this ordinance has been watered down and the latest proposal requires either the creation of separate smoking areas or, rather enigmatically, the “effort” to prevent passive smoking. While I welcome any steps toward protecting the rights of nonsmokers to breathe clean air, I urge you to reconsider a complete smoking ban in public places for three reasons: public health, business profit, and the enjoyment of Japan’s fine cuisine.

The health reasons for a smoking ban are incontrovertible. In 2003, Japan’s Health Promotion Law called for efforts to protect people from secondhand smoke. Since then, many taxis across Japan have banned smoking. The Keihin Kyuko Railway has banned smoking in all its stations. Japan Tobacco has an admirable campaign trying to remind smokers how their habit affects others and to remember good smoking manners. But really, there has been scant progress made in protecting the vast majority of Japan’s residents — the nonsmokers — from passive smoking. If Japan was serious about protecting people from secondhand smoke it would join the long and growing list of countries around the world that have banned smoking in all restaurants and bars.

Originally from New York, I’m a permanent resident who has lived in Japan for over a decade. In 2003, to protect workers’ and customers’ health, New York City (followed shortly thereafter by New York state) made all workplaces — including restaurants and bars — completely nonsmoking.

I remember the arguments against the smoking ban in New York. Restaurant and bar owners complained that they would lose a lot of business. Smokers complained that people go to bars to drink and smoke and if nonsmokers don’t like it, they can stay home. The same arguments are now being strongly expressed in Kanagawa Prefecture.

Yes, there was an initial decline in business for restaurants and bars in New York, but in the long run business improved. Smokers continued to go out to eat and drink, and nonsmokers started visiting restaurants and bars more frequently. People who previously avoided the smoky environment now enjoyed going out. The end result was an increase in restaurant/bar traffic.

The fact is, smoking bans aren’t only good for health, they’re good for business — even in Japan the evidence is clear. In the few restaurants that offer separate smoking and nonsmoking seating, it’s common to see people waiting for the nonsmoking area, even while the smoking area has empty seats. These restaurants could seat more people if the whole place was smoke-free. The smoking car on the shinkansen always has seats available up to the day of departure, while the nonsmoking seats are sold out well in advance. Doesn’t JR realize that they’d sell more tickets if the whole train was nonsmoking?

One more good reason to ban smoking is simply to protect the delicate flavor of Japan’s fine cuisine. Sushi, sashimi, tempura, soba, tofu — all of these subtle yet delicious foods inarguably taste much better when consumed in a smoke-free environment. I visit New York once or twice a year and one of the most enjoyable things about returning is that I can go out and enjoy a good meal without it being ruined by cigarette smoke.

In New York (and then in many U.S. cities/states and countries around the world), eventually even most smokers admitted that they liked the new laws. Some said they saved money on dry cleaning because their clothes didn’t stink like ashtrays after a night out. Some said that the new laws helped them reduce or quit smoking. Overall, the laws have proved to be popular with smokers, nonsmokers and restaurant owners alike.

Surely there will continue to be opposition to such laws in Kanagawa Prefecture and throughout Japan. But because a comprehensive smoking ban is (1) good for public health, (2) good for restaurant/bar business, and (3) good for enjoying the delicate and exquisite flavor of fine Japanese food, I urge you to take the bold, brave step and make Kanagawa Prefecture the clean-air leader in Japan.

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