Japan Tobacco Inc. is not alone in planning to fete the elderly on Wednesday, Respect for the Aged Day.
But where most would think a card, a hug or maybe even some flowers is good enough, Japan Tobacco will honor the elderly’s longevity in a way that has antismoking activists howling; by sending up to 10 boxes of cigarettes to some residents at old age homes.
The company maintains that it’s a way of giving something back to society and that it is a “traditional practice” going back to 1965, when JT was still a state-run monopoly.
“As a corporate member of society, we would like to make a social contribution,” company spokesman Masahiro Sasaki said.
Not everyone sees it that way.
“I don’t know what kind of a contribution they expect to make to society. I think it is tantamount to telling recipients to hurry up and die,” said Bungaku Watanabe, the sharp-tongued head of the Tobacco Problems Information Center.
Although Watanabe has been an antismoking advocate for more than two decades, he said this is the first time he has heard of the annual tobacco handouts.
He has fired off letters of protest to Health and Welfare Minister Sohei Miyashita, asking that he direct homes for the elderly to decline the presents. He has also called on other antismoking groups around the nation to mount a campaign to get Japan Tobacco to drop the annual practice.
Hirobumi Hayashi, an antitobacco activist from Shizuoka Prefecture, sent a letter to prefectural authorities in charge of elderly facilities. In it, he said he feels the distribution of tobacco clearly contravenes the spirit of the holiday, which is to “pay respect to and celebrate the longevity of the elderly,” according to the Prime Minister’s Office.
Likewise, lawyer Tadao Hozumi, who represents a group of sufferers of tobacco-related diseases in a suit against Japan Tobacco and the government, sent a similar letter to the ministry’s Planning Division of Welfare for the Elderly, requesting that it recommend that facilities decline the gifts.
“While there may be some among the elderly who are happy to receive tobacco, that does not change the fact that distributing this harmful product to facilities for the elderly is, even if not illegal, far from desirable behavior from a public health perspective,” he wrote.
But the division’s Hiromichi Morita said issuing such a recommendation is beyond the ministry’s power and it has no plans to respond to the letter or campaign.
Yumiko Mochizuki of the ministry’s Community Health, Health Promotion and Nutrition Division said the ministry can’t articulate a stance on the issue, but acknowledged that the giveaway clearly contradicts a proposal released by a ministry advisory panel on Aug. 12.
The panel urged that the state set numerical targets for the first time to halve the number of smokers by 2010. It also noted that smoking drains the equivalent of more than 4 trillion yen from the economy each year in the form of illness, accidents and premature deaths.
Japan Tobacco said it has not decided how much tobacco it is going to distribute this year, but it sent out 15 million cigarettes to nearly 5,000 homes last year and expects to deliver a similar quantity Wednesday through 31 of its national branches.
Today, the company still earns more than 96 percent of its sales from tobacco, although it has branched out into other industries, including beverages and pharmaceuticals.
Sasaki said the firm has no plans to expand the Respect for The Aged Day program to include other products, such as medicine or drinks, and has no intention of stopping its current practice of distributing tobacco.