Educational and grassroots activities will be crucial if Japan is to successfully reduce the nation’s relatively high number of smokers and incidence of lung cancer — one of the leading causes of death in this country, said scientist and tobacco educator Jeffrey Wigand.
“We all must know that the tobacco industry makes profits by using nicotine addiction, lying to the public to hide the negative effects of its products and especially targeting children,” he told The Japan Times on Wednesday.
Wigand came to prominence in 1995 when he became the highest-ranking former tobacco executive to blow the whistle on nearly 50 years of industry lies. His story was chronicled in the movie “The Insider.”
The former Vice President of Research and Development for U.S. tobacco giant Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., maker of the Lucky Strike brand, is in Japan for today’s World No Tobacco Day to speak about his experiences working for, and later against, the tobacco industry.
Wigand blames Japan’s high smoking ratio — 32.9 percent of adults smoke — on its more than 62,000 vending machines, low cigarette prices and pervasive advertising, which he said make many people start smoking from a young age.
“I could go outside and buy a pack of cigarettes for 280 yen on the corner if I were 3 years old,” he said.
A survey released by Japan Tobacco Inc. in May 2000 shows that 53.5 percent of men and 13.7 percent of women smoke. The World Health Organization estimates that 95,000 Japanese die prematurely each year from tobacco-related diseases.
Wigand said people are uninformed about nicotine’s extremely addictive nature and that each cigarette contains hundreds of harmful chemicals.
“Cigarettes generally contain only 50 percent tobacco,” he said, noting that they also include about 600 intentionally added chemical substances and a few hundred unintentional ones, such as pesticide residue from tobacco leaves.
“The industry tells you that smoking is a behavior based on adult choice, but does the tobacco industry tell you that it is extremely addictive and what is in its products?”
For nearly 50 years, U.S. tobacco firms maintained that its products were neither addictive nor deadly.
Wigand said the situation is similar in Japan. Although what was then the Health and Welfare Ministry recognized smoking as a health risk in the late 1980s, Japan Tobacco has yet to acknowledge its products are addictive or harmful.
“It is absurd (because) JT manufactures Marlboro here, under a license agreement with Philip Morris, which admitted in 1999 that their products are cancer-causing and addictive,” he said.
Wigand currently works to combat youth smoking by educating children about tobacco through his nonprofit group Smoke-Free Kids, as well as advising numerous governments, including those of Canada, Israel, the United States and Sweden.
“It starts with children, who first become addicted to the image of cigarette smoking, the image of sexuality, sensuality and athleticism, all the things kids like to look at,” he said. “Then it goes to chemical addiction, and the younger the addiction starts, the harder for them to kick.
“What I do is educate kids to understand how they are manipulated and duped (by tobacco advertising).”
Despite laws prohibiting smoking for minors, more Japanese kids are lighting up. According to a 1996 survey by the Institute of Public Health, more than 7 percent of female and 25 percent of male high school seniors smoke daily.
Wigand said the vending machines and widespread advertising are again to blame.
Wigand also warns against expecting health initiatives to come from the top and advocates grassroots campaigning, given the unique relationship between the Japanese government and the domestic tobacco industry.
The Finance Ministry is legally required to own nearly two-thirds of outstanding shares of Japan Tobacco, a former state monopoly nominally privatized in 1984, and tobacco tax revenues amount to around 2.4 trillion yen annually. Japan Tobacco also employs a number of retired bureaucrats.
As an example of the government’s reluctance to discourage tobacco consumption, the Finance Ministry in 1999 successfully scrapped a Health Ministry plan to set targets for reducing the number of smokers.
“What is needed is concerted efforts by teachers, doctors and other citizens to ‘denormalize’ the current situation,” he said.
Wigand referred to California’s progressive stance as a good example, noting that its policy of a smoke-free environment, anti-smoking education, high cigarette prices and restricted advertising, has cut lung cancer deaths by 18 percent in a decade.
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