It’s not surprising that the local media glossed over the World Health Organization’s 14th annual World No Tobacco Day last Thursday. The government, a member in good standing of the United Nations and a conscientious contributor to its causes, didn’t start preparing a seminar to mark the occasion until May 15.

In Japan, the smoking debate is a matter of manners, not health.

Everyone knows that the government is the main shareholder in Japan Tobacco and that the official line on the smoking issue is to approach it from the standpoint of “manners” and “fairness”: Smokers and nonsmokers should respect each others’ rights; young people must wait until they are 20 before they light up; and cigarettes are a matter of choice.

Still, everybody loves a good fight, and when the media does cover nonsmoking stories they tend to see it as a them vs. them issue rather than a health one. The reason is partly due to economics: TV and print media receive a great deal of tobacco-related ad revenues, even though the tobacco industry itself voluntarily “restricts” cigarette ads. On Thursday night, after a perfunctory mention of WHO’s aims, Asahi TV’s “News Station” ran an analysis of how much tax revenue the country would lose if Japanese smokers really did quit.

Conflict is sexier, too. For instance, Tokyo Sports is the last publication you would expect to run a story about the antismoking crusade, but on May 30, the day before the WHO event, it published an in-depth piece (for Tokyo Sports, anyway) about this year’s list of Japan’s Worst Smokers compiled by the Tobacco Problems Information Center (TOPIC).

Everyone loves lists, especially reporters, since they make their jobs easier. This year’s winner was motormouth announcer Ichiro Furutachi, who was chosen not so much because he smokes a lot, but because he has mentioned on TV how much he hates antismoking groups. Second on the list was the rock group L’arc en ciel, whose members smoke like chimneys in concert and on TV. In third place was comedian Hitoshi Matsumoto, who told a weekly magazine that antismoking groups “could eat s***.” (I’ve been told that this phrase doesn’t sound as harsh in Japanese as it does in English, which is nice to know.) Also on the list were SMAP-man Takuya Kimura and wholesome actress Takako Matsu, both of whom did a lot of puffing this past year on TV drama series.

Tokyo Sports’ take on the list had little to do with smoking “issues” and everything to do with getting the dirt on celebs. The newspaper’s reporter called the offices of Furutachi and L’arc en ciel and, predictably, were told that no one was available for comment.

Two weeks ago on Fuji TV’s morning wide show “Toku Da Ne,” there was a lengthy report on the alarming rise in teenage smoking. But what alarmed the reporters and the commentators in the studio was not the health ramifications (despite its proximity, the WHO event wasn’t even mentioned) but the social ones. The reporter, it was implied, was taking his life in his hands by wandering through a train in Chiba Prefecture filled with smoking high school students returning home from classes. He boldly told the youngsters that they weren’t old enough to smoke, and the kids came back with the kind of snide, embarrassed remarks that kids are famous for. But at least they didn’t beat him up.

The shock and dismay in the studio was over the kids’ antisocial behavior. No one mentioned the dangers of smoking. Japan still has a way to go before it starts addressing cigarette addiction as a health crisis on the level that the WHO addresses it. Consequently, the topic for this year’s World No Tobacco Day — secondhand smoke — is beyond the pale. If people still won’t talk about the health risks of smoking, they aren’t even going to think about environmental tobacco smoke.

This became evident at the press conference last Wednesday for Dr. Jeffrey Wigand, the whistle-blower portrayed by Russell Crowe in the movie “The Insider.” A one-time tobacco company executive who buckled under his conscience and told CBS and the world Big Tobacco’s dirty little secrets, Wigand, who now teaches high school chemistry, has become a one-man antismoking NGO. Local nongovernmental organizations brought him to Japan (where he lived and worked for a short time) as the main speaker for their own No Tobacco Day activities.

TOPIC understands that without gimmicks like the Worst Smokers list, the media won’t pay any attention to them. And while Wigand was here as an expert on the dangers of cigarette addiction, the NGOs were counting on his celebrity value to attract more major media than they normally do. As it turned out, the Asahi Shimbun and the Mainichi Shimbun were the only vernacular dailies in attendance and NHK the only TV station that sent a cameraman.

Wigand pointed out that his approach to the cigarette problem is not to intimidate or frighten but to give young people all of the facts about cigarettes, not only the harm that they cause, but the methods used by the tobacco industry to get them hooked for life. The industry repeatedly states that smoking is a lifestyle choice made by adults, and Wigand, fighting fire with fire, so to speak, treats the young people he works with as adults.

Judging from the questions, about half the journalists were there to report on Wigand, not on his work. These reporters asked him about his private life (including his divorce) and the movie (he only met Crowe once, and had little to do with the production itself). They applauded his courage and conscience, but in the end they seemed less interested in what he was doing than what he was.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.