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Staff writer

Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.

At least antismoking advocates hope that a recent spate of new lawsuits against tobacco manufacturers and smoking restrictions announced by industries will spark a change in tobacco policy.

Two new lawsuits — one against the government and Japan Tobacco Inc. and the other against a U.S. tobacco company — are designed to do just that. “If either of these cases result in court victories, I think people from around the country will really start filing suits (against the government and tobacco industry),” said Bungaku Watanabe, director of Tobacco Problems Information Center (TOPIC), a tobacco industry watchdog.

A staunch and vociferous antitobacco activist for the last two decades, Watanabe feels these two cases will lend momentum to the movement against Japan’s colossal tobacco industry. On Friday, a group of seven people suffering from tobacco-related diseases will bring a suit against the government and Japan Tobacco for the first time in Tokyo District Court history.

Led by Yoshi Isayama, president of the Lawyers’ Organization for Nonsmokers’ Rights, the seven plaintiffs will ask the government to prohibit tobacco advertising, outlaw tobacco vending machines, require more explicit warning labels on cigarette packages and pay 10 million yen in damages to each plaintiff. “The situation in Japan is terrible,” Isayama said. “Warning labels are so vague they have no meaning. We are not given information about the dangers of tobacco, so we can’t make an informed decision.”

In Nagoya last month, 20 plaintiffs filed a similar suit against Philip Morris K.K., an affiliate of U.S.-based Philip Morris Co. This is the first suit filed against a foreign company. Plaintiffs want the company to cease imports and sales of cigarettes in Japan and are requesting 100,000 yen each.

The plaintiffs contend that the U.S. company should not be allowed to sell in Japan a product recognized to be harmful in its own country. Moreover they feel that it is morally disingenuous for the company to label its U.S. products with warnings about smoking, such as “smoking causes lung cancer, heart disease and emphysema” while labeling Japanese products with a milder “smoking too much can be detrimental to one’s health.”

These two cases are the latest steps by an energetic, albeit small, movement fighting the tobacco industry in Japan.

Aside from legal actions, a shift away from tobacco is visible in some segments of society, industry and government — although the pace is just short of glacial.

Watanabe launched TOPIC in 1978, after kicking the nicotine habit himself. Since then, the number of antismoking groups in Japan has grown from 11 to 70, he said.

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