Japan has long held a reputation of being something of a paradise for smokers. Tobacco is, at least by Western standards, relatively cheap and people can still light up in many of the country’s restaurants and bars. In fact, before the turn of the century smokers could pretty much puff away on a cigarette anywhere.

There used to be little social stigma against smokers — they were accepted as a fairly ordinary part of society. People smoked near women who were pregnant or in close proximity to children. If others didn’t want their clothes or hair to reek of smoke, it was up to them to find a smoke-free space.

Within the past decade, the landscape has changed significantly. Many urban areas now prohibit smoking in public spaces on the streets, while a number of restaurants have either created segregated smoking and nonsmoking sections in dining rooms or introduced no-smoking rules during lunch hours. Hospitals and companies involved in public transportation, including taxis, have laid down a complete ban on smoking. The retail price of cigarettes has even increased a little.

Despite the progress, Japan still lags behind other industrialized countries when it comes to anti-smoking measures. Those who wish to create more smoke-free alternatives in society see the 2020 Tokyo Olympics as a rare opportunity to put the capital in line with global standards.

This, however, is easier said than done.

Politicians and businesses involved in hospitality have a vested interest in the tobacco industry, says former Kanagawa Gov. Shigefumi Matsuzawa. Kanagawa became the first prefecture to enact an ordinance to prevent smoking in public places in 2009. The ordinance sparked controversy because it not only banned smoking in public facilities such as hospitals and schools, it required large restaurants and hotels to either ban smoking altogether or segregate smokers from nonsmokers. The local government even handed out fines for those who flouted the rules.

“The resentment I faced was overwhelming,” Matsuzawa tells The Japan Times. “It was a constant political battle. It took me three years to dismantle the opposition of lawmakers who were backed by various industries that support smoking.”

The government has a unique relationship with the tobacco industry.

Japan Tobacco Inc., the nation’s only tobacco manufacturer, was a government-run monopoly until 1985 when it was privatized. JT’s cigarette products account for more than 60 percent of the domestic market.

Article 1 of the Tobacco Business Law, which was enacted to coincide with the privatization of JT, says the objective of the legislation is to “ensure the sound development of the tobacco industry in Japan, thereby contributing to fiscal revenue and the sound development of the national economy.”

Related legislation under the Japan Tobacco Law obliges the government to own more than one-third of JT’s listed shares. The Finance Ministry had owned more than 50 percent of shares in JT until as recently as 2013, when the government sold some of its stocks to finance the reconstruction of Tohoku in the wake of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. The government currently owns 33.35 percent of JT.

As a result, the Finance Ministry has received dividends worth tens of billions of yen in addition to more than ¥2 trillion in tobacco tax every year.

Every step in the production process and sale of tobacco in Japan is overseen by the Finance Ministry. Changes in cigarette prices must be approved by the ministry and the 1984 Tobacco Business Law requires JT to buy all of the nation’s tobacco crop in order to protect the livelihood of the farmers. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party receives plenty of support from those involved in each step of the process, from tobacco farmers to retail outlets.

“The Finance Ministry basically overseas a socialist system,” Matsuzawa says. “Everyone stands to lose if there are stricter tobacco regulations because they all have vested interests in the industry. That’s why Japan can’t regulate smoking.”

Tobacco prices are still relatively cheap in Japan, at least compared to other industrialized countries. After the consumption tax hike in April last year, one box of 20 cigarettes is currently priced at around ¥450, with tax accounting for about 65 percent of the cost. Prices are steadily on the rise, but they are more affordable than packets of cigarettes in countries such as Norway, the United Kingdom, Ireland and Australia, which typically cost the equivalent of more than ¥1,000.

Bungaku Watanabe, who heads the Tobacco Problems Information Center, says tobacco prices are kept stable because the Finance Ministry wishes to control the tax revenue cigarettes generate. “(In other countries), a ministry or agency in charge of public health oversees tobacco and alcohol, but Japan is the only country in the world where tobacco is supervised by the Finance Ministry,” Watanabe says. “We even have a law that supports the development of our nation’s tobacco industry to secure a steady tax revenue.”

Few restrictions have been placed on tobacco advertising in Japan. The Tobacco Institute of Japan, an industry body comprising manufacturers, has created a set of self-imposed regulations to allow messages such as “Smoking causes lung cancer, worsens emphysema and increases the risk of a heart attack or a stroke” to appear on cigarette packets.

However, such warnings are nothing like the graphic images included on cigarette packets in other industrialized countries. “Smoking causes fatal lung cancer,” reads the warning on a packet in the European Union, which also features a photo of a healthy lung alongside a cancer-ridden lung.

“This is what dying of lung cancer looks like,” reads the warning on a Canadian cigarette packet that also depicts a bald woman with hollow eyes lying in a hospital bed. Her name and age are also printed.

Watanabe says such graphic images are effective but unlikely to be introduced in Japan.

“Graphic images and illustrations that warn smokers about the harmful effects of cigarettes are used in about 50 countries worldwide but I think it will be difficult to introduce here as long as the Finance Ministry controls policy,” Watanabe says.

Tobacco companies typically refrain from advertising cigarette products on television and radio. However, JT often runs etiquette campaigns to promote the “harmonious coexistence between smokers and nonsmokers,” urging smokers not to puff on a cigarette while walking or discard butts on the streets.

Watanabe, however, argues that this is essentially advertising disguised as a public service announcement, which violates the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.

The convention, which came into force in 2005, calls on member parties “to protect present and future generations from the devastating health, social, environmental and economic consequences of tobacco consumption and exposure to tobacco smoke.” Article 13 stipulates that the states should “undertake a comprehensive ban of all tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship.”

“Foreign and health ministry officials know that these (JT) advertisements are a violation of the convention … but instead of telling the truth, they cower to the Finance Ministry and bury it,” Watanabe says. “The lack of measures Japan is taking despite being a signatory member of the convention is shameful. There is no other country that contradicts itself in the same way that Japan does.”

Watanabe, 77, used to smoke 60 cigarettes a day before he began his anti-smoking activities in the late 1970s. Those were the days when there was only one nonsmoking car on the Kodama bullet train and more than 70 percent of all Japanese men smoked.

The managing editor of a monthly magazine called “Kinen Jānaru” (“No-smoking Journal”) for 25 years, he coined the term bunen (segregated smoking) in Japanese. He says there was a time when Japan needed to promote bunen, but now the time has come to go further and institute a complete ban on smoking in public.

For the meantime, however, it looks like the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare will continue to fight a losing battle against passive smoking as long as the Finance Ministry continues to hold shares in JT. For a long time, the only legal framework that existed was Article 25 of the 2003 Health Promotion Law, which states that “efforts must be made to prevent passive smoking” at schools, hospitals, restaurants and other facilities used by a large number of people. The legislation, however, is completely toothless and lacks punitive consequences. In June last year, the government tried to improve things by revising the Industrial Safety and Health Law to oblige employers to take steps to protect their staff from passive smoking.

Surprisingly, anti-tobacco campaigners are not the only lobby group that is calling for JT to become independent of the government.

“In order for JT to grow as a global company, it needs to be able to compete on an equal footing with other global tobacco companies,” JT spokesperson Dmitry Krivtsov says. “For this reason, we desire the removal of the requirement of government ownership under the Japan Tobacco Law.”

According to 2009 data included in the 2012 Tobacco Atlas, Japan was the fifth-highest consumer of tobacco in the world, following China, Russia, the U.S. and Indonesia. The overall number of smokers in the population, however, is declining every year, dropping from 27.7 percent in 2003 to 19.3 percent 10 years later, according to figures from the health ministry. As a result, the number of tobacco farms in operation is also falling, from 20,938 farms in 2002 to just 6,124 a decade later.

In the U.S., by comparison, the number of smokers dropped from 20.9 percent in 2005 to 18.1 percent in 2012, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Do these figures signal the beginning of the end for the tobacco industry? Is it even conceivable that Tokyo could become smoke-free in the same vein as New York and Paris by 2020?

Krivtsov acknowledges that smoking rates are falling owing to a number of factors, including tobacco tax hikes, tightening of smoke regulations and growing health consciousness.

“Our goal is to meet adult consumers’ needs by providing quality products. At the same time, we aim to create a society that is comfortable for both smokers and nonsmokers, where both can coexist in harmony,” Krivtsov says, adding that JT is actively promoting the segregation of smoking and nonsmoking areas.

But Hiroshi Yamato, a doctor and expert on smoking at the University of Occupational and Environmental Health in Kitakyushu, opposes such segregation because the policy doesn’t protect employees in the hospitality industry who work at restaurants, bars and izakaya.

“People only tend to focus on the customers, but employees are in a much more serious situation,” Yamato says. “The amount of secondhand smoke they inhale at work everyday is significant.”

Many restaurant and bar owners are reluctant to adopt anti-smoking measures because they are afraid they might lose customers.

Yamato, however, points to academic papers that suggest otherwise.

The 2009 handbook issued by the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, for example, says “methodologically sound research studies from developed countries consistently conclude that smoke-free policies do not have an adverse economic impact on the business activity of restaurants, bars or establishments catering to tourists.”

Yamato has also conducted extensive research on a family restaurant chain that had introduced both nonsmoking restaurants and ones that had segregated smoking sections. Examining sales over a period of five years and comparing the figures posted two years before the policy change against the most recent total, Yamato and his colleagues found that sales had increased significantly in the smoke-free facilities.

“When you think about it, 80 percent of the population doesn’t smoke and the more space there is for nonsmokers, the more customers are likely to be seated,” Yamato says, adding that nonsmoking customers are more likely to frequent places that adopt a no-smoking policy.

In November last year, pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Japan Inc. released the results of a survey it conducted among foreign residents on their views on smoking in Japan. About 60 percent of the 400 people who responded thought it was easier to smoke in Japan compared to their home countries and 42 percent said they thought Japan had little awareness toward passive smoking.

What’s more, 72 percent said the municipal government needed to pass legislation to prevent passive smoking in Tokyo before the 2020 Olympics.

“No-smoking policies have become the norm worldwide,” Yamato says. “We are worried that athletes and tourists will come to Tokyo in 2020 and be shocked at how smoky the city’s restaurants and bars are. We risk severely damaging the country’s reputation.”

After the International Olympic Committee awarded Tokyo the 2020 Games, anti-smoking lobby groups had high hopes the local government would look to adopt the IOC’s tobacco-free policy. They also noted that recent host cities all passed legislation to ban smoking in public spaces — including restaurants, bars and cafes — and dish out penalties for those who ignored the rules. Tokyo Gov. Yoichi Masuzoe even brought up the issue with reporters last summer, sparking heated opposition from Liberal Democratic Party members of the Tokyo Assembly. In September, Masuzoe received a letter stating that anti-smoking measures should be adopted “voluntarily,” and that such policies should ensure that both “smoking and nonsmoking people can live comfortably.”

Masuzoe created an advisory panel last October to examine the issue in more detail but the criticism forced the Tokyo governor to pour cold water on the idea by the end of the year. “There are considerations that make it difficult to enact legislation on penalties for smoking,” Masuzoe told reporters in December, adding that he wished to promote segregated smoking areas instead. “I haven’t completely given up on the idea of anti-smoking legislation but I will work on other policies first.”

Matsuzawa, the former governor of Kanagawa, isn’t surprised Masuzoe has backed away from the issue. He spent three years talking to ordinary residents, businesses involved in the hospitality industry and Kanagawa lawmakers in an attempt to convince them legislation was necessary.

He faced stiff opposition every step of the way, and even started receiving letters and phone calls from people who threatened to kill him. When that didn’t deter him, people turned their attention to his daughters. By the end of his term, Matsuzawa says he had two security men guarding him at all times. “I couldn’t back down,” Matsuzawa says. “I pledged to introduce no-smoking legislation during my election campaign and I had a duty to follow through on my promise. I ultimately had to compromise a bit but that can’t be helped — that’s the nature of politics.”

Hyogo Prefecture followed Kanagawa’s lead and became the second administrative district nationwide to introduce legislation that banned smoking in public places in 2013.

Matsuzawa, who is currently an Upper House lawmaker and secretary general of Jisedai no To (Party for Future Generations), believes lawmakers need to introduce anti-smoking legislation at a national level before the Tokyo Olympics. He has created a nonpartisan group of lawmakers that aims to hammer out legislation promoting a smoke-free Tokyo.

“We need to make the Tokyo Olympics a success but that won’t happen without anti-smoking legislation that is in line with global standards,” Matsuzawa says. “There will definitely be opposition from lobby groups with vested interests, but I know I will at least have the support of the international community.”

The war against tobacco in Japan is just heating up …

“Passive smoking disaster in Tokyo or Japan” essay contest
Foreigners living in Japan are invited to submit essays on their experience on passive smoking in Japan. The essays can be in either English or Japanese, and must be no more than two A4 pages. The deadline is April 30. The ¥50,000 first prize will go to two winners, five applicants will win ¥20,000 and 10 will receive ¥10,000. For further information, call Japan Society for Tobacco Control at 03-5367-8233 or email desk@nosmoke55.jp.

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