Restaurant chains are taking the smoking ban into their own hands

by Patrick ST. Michel

Contributing Writer

Customers who have been to the nationwide kushikatsu (deep-fried meat and vegetables on skewers) restaurant Kushikatsu Tanaka since the start of June may have noticed some new posters on the wall. Walk in to most outposts of the chain serving up the deep-fried Osaka specialty and you’ll see big signs declaring the whole shop is now nonsmoking.

“Our stores, before June, were mostly smoking-friendly, but we also have lots of customers who have families and small children,” says Monami Nagase, a representative for the company. “They are important to us, and we thought it was strange the majority of our shops allowed smoking.”

News of this move won the chain plenty of coverage online, with happy netizens celebrating the decision on social media. The ban has only been in effect for a month, but everything at the chain appears to be business as usual. It has opened more outposts (including its first restaurant in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture) and continues to pack in customers (the company is reporting a 2 percent increase in customers compared to June last year, though overall sales fell 2.9 percent).

Smoke-free is slowly but surely becoming the new norm for Japanese chain dining. The past six months have seen a handful of prominent family restaurants and fast-food establishments take steps toward banning tobacco from their stores.

Italian-themed eatery Saizeriya will test smoke-free establishments in Kyoto and in shopping centers later this month, ahead of a nationwide nonsmoking plan set for April 2020. It joins Coco’s, Bikkuri Donkey and Mos Burger in aiming to ban smoking next year.

“After our press release, some chain restaurants like us also started making their stores nonsmoking (on a) trial basis, so we think we had some influence,” Nagase says, though places like McDonald’s adopted a nonsmoking policy as early as 2014.

Smoking — and the passive smoke coming off of cigarettes — has remained a prevalent part of life in Japan, and it is a noticeable trait of the nation’s restaurants.

“The Olympics has changed the situation,” says Manabu Sakuta, the chairman of the Japan Society for Tobacco Control, alluding to a recent revision to the Health Promotion Law that bans smoking indoors in schools, hospitals and other public institutions.

But the revision did not prevent smoking in restaurants, and only stated that restaurants must have clearly marked smoking and nonsmoking sections. Venues up to 100 square meters in size don’t even need to worry about that, as they are exempt, aside from the need to display a sign prominently in front of the establishment that says smoking is allowed.

Sakuta says it was the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, pushed on by the Japanese tobacco industry, that allowed for the weak regulation. Despite this, he seems upbeat about where things are going, especially in Tokyo, where the municipal government seems set on passing harsher anti-smoking laws than those the national government rolled out. These proposals have already influenced many restaurants, chains in particular.

“On April 1, 2018, the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly put into force an ordinance against passive smoking aimed at protecting children,” says Kushikatsu Tanaka’s Nagase. “Our company has over 90 stores in Tokyo, so that made us really think about becoming a more child-friendly establishment.”

Sakuta sees several other factors prompting larger eateries to go smoke free. “Young workers hate smoking conditions, so (companies struggle to) hire young employees if they allow smoking.” He also points to research performed by professor Mikio Kawamata, that shows that “once a restaurant becomes smoke free, 42.1 percent of people say that they will go more often. Only 12.7 percent say that they will go less often.”

Nagase also highlights a 2017 poll conducted by Japan Tobacco that shows the number of people who smoke in Japan is decreasing over time. The one growth area is in the use of e-cigarettes, such as iQOS or Ploom Tech. But, as of now, most of these devices fall under restaurant and eatery smoking bans.

Still, the influx of tourists into Japan — crystallized by the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics — has sped up the process of chains going smoke-free.

While Kushikatsu Tanaka took the plunge in June, more restaurants and fast-food joints will make serious efforts to ban tobacco in 2019. Many will do so before September of that year, when Japan hosts the Rugby World Cup, the nation’s first prominent international gathering to be held in the lead up to the games.

And, while the government’s concession to the tobacco industry means Japan won’t be totally smoke-free by the time 2020 comes around, many national chains are taking matters into their own hands. More independent venues are trying to retain a customer base that still smokes, but younger consumers, families and overseas tourists present a far juicier demographic for larger restaurants. They’ll shape the face of smoke-free dining in Japan, at least in the immediate future.

A recent trip to a Kushikatsu Tanaka in western Tokyo on a Thursday evening offered a glimpse of what could be. The restaurant was filled with customers fresh off work enjoying the food. The new signage was prominent on a back wall. When someone wanted to smoke, they simply got up and went outside for a minute or two. Then they returned, and everything carried on as normal.