Staff writer

After six months of fiery debate, a government panel on smoking policy ended in a stalemate as pro-smoking and antismoking members failed to agree to recommend any concrete measures for future tobacco policy to the government.

Having convened eight times since February, the 21st Century Tobacco Policy Deliberation concluded Monday by submitting a report on its deliberations to the Ministry of Health and Welfare.

Established to come up with concrete tobacco policy recommendations, government officials and antismoking activists voiced disappointment with the outcome.

About the only topics the committee could agree on were preventing underage smoking and increasing antismoking education. “In Japan more than 50 percent of men smoke, and when you include women, more than a third (of the people) smoke,” said chairman of the committee, Tadao Shimao.

“It would have been nice if the committee could have been a little more productive,” said Soichiro Iwao, director of the Health and Welfare Ministry’s Community Health Division Health Service Bureau.

However, he added, it is significant that members represented the public — both smokers and nonsmokers — although with that type of composition, a consensus can’t be expected. Four of the 17 committee members were from the tobacco industry or otherwise pro-tobacco.

Despite criticism of the panel’s composition, certain progress may be born from an unforeseen source, a ministerial consolation prize of sorts. At the final deliberation earlier this month, in response to a committee member’s query, the Ministry of Finance’s Tobacco and Salt Industries Office allowed that tobacco makers may label their products with warnings as stringent as those used abroad.

Until now, industry and antismoking activists alike assumed that the only acceptable label was the lenient and much criticized warning dictated by the Tobacco Industry Law: “Because it can be harmful to your health, be careful of smoking too much.”

Experts are not sure why the ministry broadened its interpretation of the law. But some surmise that it may portend a slight change and is a way of adopting an attitude slightly closer to other advanced countries without risking drastic changes. “The ministry thinks this a very important development,” said Yumiko Mochizuki of the health ministry’s Community Health, Health Promotion and Nutrition Division Health Service Bureau. This could lead to stricter warning labels, heightening awareness of risk and potentially reducing the number of smokers, she added.

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