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Staff writerSusumu Motojima, head of Japan Tobacco Inc.’s Kyoto branch, recently said smoking is a “pastime or habit an adult has the right to choose.”

In a June symposium on smoking held in Otsu, Shiga Prefecture, Motojima said government regulation of smoking would constitute a “violation of basic human rights” and referred to the health ministry’s antismoking campaign as “fascist.”

The remarks came as a shock, especially to Hirotsugu Ueshima, a doctor specializing in heart disease prevention at Shiga University of Medical Science, who chaired the meeting.

Ueshima told the audience that health damage caused by smoking is common knowledge among scientists and that the government must move ahead to take steps to reduce the number of smokers.

“In the end, I asked (Motojima) if JT officially refuses to admit tobacco risks, despite numerous statistics that have pointed out the risks, and he said ‘yes,’ ” the doctor said.

“I was simply shocked by their corporate logic, which places sole priority on business interests.”

Ueshima is no stranger to the logic of the monopolistic enterprise, which is partly owned by the government.

He was a member of the council that compiled a draft of the national health plan for the current decade for the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry.

Amid mounting medical reports on the health risks associated with smoking, the council in 1999 proposed a target of halving the nation’s smoking population, which currently accounts for around 33 percent of the adult population.

The reaction from the nation’s tobacco industry was quick and fierce.

Submitting a petition with more than 50,000 signatures, the industry, led by JT, successfully pressured the health ministry to abandon the numerical target.

The watered-down plan, Health Japan 21, was put forward in March, with the aim of merely raising public awareness of the health risks of smoking and eradicating underage smoking.

Tobacco business heaven

Japan has been a Shangri-La for the tobacco industry — for JT, tobacco retailers, farmers and the government.

In global terms, Japan has the fourth-largest percentage of adult smokers, according to the American Cancer Society.

It is out-puffed only by South Korea, China and Russia, the society says.

According to a survey released last year by JT, 53.5 percent of adult men and 13.7 percent of women smoked as of May 2000.

In 1999, 332.2 billion cigarettes, including 82.1 billion imported cigarettes, were sold in Japan, suggesting that people aged over 15 smoked an average of 8.5 cigarettes a day for the year.

While the smoking rate in Japan has decreased slightly over the past five years, an increasing number of teenagers, who are legally banned from smoking, have taken up the habit.

According to a survey last year by the then Management and Coordination Agency, 24.4 percent of male high school seniors and 12.2 percent of female students in the same grade said they had tried smoking.

Of these, 58.8 percent of the males and 34.6 of the females said they smoked more than one cigarette a day.

Lawyer Yoshio Isayama, representing a group of five former smokers who filed a damages suit against JT and the government at the Tokyo District Court, said the high smoker ratio in Japan owes much to a situation in which the state relies heavily on the tax revenues that tobacco sales generate.

Tobacco sales annually bring in about 2.4 trillion yen in tax revenues for the central and local governments, making the tobacco business an indispensable revenue source for a debt-ridden state whose annual general expenditures are less than 50 trillion yen.

Out of the 250 yen usually paid for a pack of cigarettes, 71 yen goes to the central and local governments and 12.5 yen is paid as a 5 percent consumption tax.

JT, a former state-owned monopoly privatized in 1985, pays around 160 billion yen in corporate and other taxes annually.

Industry’s other players

The other players in the industry, about 23,000 tobacco farming households and 302,000 tobacco retailers nationwide, have opposed every move by the government to regulate smoking from the perspective of public health, by lobbying lawmakers within the Liberal Democratic Party who have close ties with the industry.

Since the launch of Health Japan 21, local municipalities have been compiling their own programs, with industry players having successfully obstructed some municipalities’ efforts to reduce local smoking rates.

Yasunori Komori, 52, a tobacco farmer in the village of Nomura, Ehime Prefecture, said producing tobacco leaves is the most profitable and stable income source for his household.

“Tobacco generates five times more money than rice per hectare — there is simply no other plant like that,” he said.

Despite the steady decline in the price of other agricultural produce, the price of tobacco leaves has been set unchanged by JT for the past 13 years.

Komori is a board member of the tobacco farmers union in the prefecture, which attempted in vain to stop the prefecture from setting numerical targets to reduce smoking rates.

Despite the industry’s attempt to block local governments from setting numerical targets, 11 prefectural governments, including Ehime, have decided to set such targets as of early June.

Isayama simply calls the situation unhealthy. “It is like the government is addicted to tobacco, just like smokers are,” he said.

“In the government, you can see an attitude typical of smokers — to keep smoking while trying really hard to ignore tobacco’s ill effects.”

Legal stranglehold

While the mounting scientific evidence on the ill effects of smoking has pushed the health ministry to start combating tobacco-related issues, the ministry has no legal authority to regulate tobacco, which is under the jurisdiction of the Finance Ministry.

What experts pinpoint as the most effective tools in curbing smoking — price increases and stricter warnings — are in the hands of the Finance Ministry under the Tobacco Industry Law. Whether the health ministry has a say at all remains in question.

The law stipulates that the Finance Ministry must protect the tobacco industry, ensuring its “sound development” and “the stable supply of tax money.”

While the ministry is currently deliberating on future tobacco-related policies, ministry officials said they are not in charge of regulating tobacco from a health perspective, saying that is the responsibility of the health ministry.

“It is apparently unusual that the country has no legal provision to regulate tobacco from a health perspective,” said Keita Fukui, deputy director of the Finance Ministry’s tobacco and salt industries office.

“We will fully cooperate with the ministry responsible for public health for the purpose, if it takes steps.”

But the Finance Ministry so far seems reluctant to even assist the health ministry’s efforts to combat tobacco-related problems.

A prime example is the health ministry’s small budget for programs on tobacco-related issues that is decided by the Finance Ministry, which has control over budget allocations for all the ministries. The Finance Ministry granted only 37 million yen in fiscal 2001 for the programs.

The Finance Ministry has also reportedly interfered with the health ministry’s policies on tobacco issues, even going as far as saying that tobacco-related issues are not within the health ministry’s jurisdiction.

Isayama said the situation surrounding smoking will not change unless the jurisdiction over tobacco-related policies is moved into the hands of the health ministry.

“Responding to mounting scientific evidence of tobacco’s ill effects, ministries responsible for public health have taken over the jurisdiction over tobacco in other industrialized countries,” the lawyer said.

“But the Japanese government still regards the tobacco business only as a convenient source of tax revenue.”

Aside from such revenues, the Finance Ministry has another reason to protect the tobacco industry — JT employs a number of the ministry’s retired bureaucrats, in an apparent effort to preserve its influence in the ministry.

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