OSAKA — While municipal officials and local business leaders announce grand construction plans to turn this city into an international center for tourism and conventions, antismoking activist Hiroshi Nogami suggests that to make Osaka more attractive to visitors, they should set their sights much lower — at around the height of a child.
“One of the worst problems in Osaka is the large number of people who smoke while walking along crowded streets,” Nogami said. “Children accompanying parents are at eye level with the cigarettes people hold, and the smoke goes right into their faces.”
Nogami is the head of Tobaccoless, an Osaka-based nongovernmental organization pushing local governments nationwide to pass ordinances that ban smoking in public places. The group supported the historic decision last year by Tokyo’s Chiyoda Ward to ban smoking on the street in several areas, and Nogami said it is now time for his group to redirect its efforts to its own backyard.
“Historically, Osaka has lagged behind Tokyo and other local governments on public health and environmental issues,” he said. “For example, Osaka was the last major city to ban smoking in municipal subway stations.”
In late January, Tobaccoless called on the city to enact legislation to make it illegal to walk along a street with a lighted cigarette.
Nogami said the ordinance would remove the danger of being burned by a cigarette, reduce fire hazards and save the city more than 10 million yen a year in cleanup costs.
“Our research and talks with city officials indicate that is the minimum amount spent on sweeping cigarette butts from the streets and emptying public ashtrays,” he said.
Support for the proposal, however, is mixed. While nearly everyone recognizes the dangers posed by cigarettes on crowded streets, some city bureaucrats believe the proposed law goes too far.
“It would be nearly impossible to enforce such an ordinance,” an official at the mayor’s office said on condition of anonymity. “There is also the issue of infringing on the rights of smokers. Rather than an ordinance, we need to do more to educate the public on the dangers posed by walking around with lighted cigarettes.”
In support of the ban are local residents who are fed up with inhaling secondhand smoke and getting burned by cigarettes. Also among the proponents is the very group of people the city is courting — foreign visitors.
“The convention center had nonsmoking areas, and that’s appreciated. But walking through the streets of north Osaka was a nightmare,” said Dwight Carma, an American engineer who was recently in town for a convention at the Osaka International Convention Center. “The air was thick with cigarette smoke, even in places where there were No Smoking signs. It’s an experience foreign visitors, even those like me who smoke, do not want.”
Nogami admits a big challenge will be overcoming this Osaka trait. “Osaka people are notoriously stubborn when it comes to rules. They don’t like to be told by the government what they should and should not do.”
But the growing awareness of the health and safety risks posed by smoking in crowded areas, and the desire by government and business leaders to spruce up the city’s image, may be the agents of change. At least Nogami hopes so.
“I imagine an ordinance similar to the one Chiyoda Ward passed will eventually be approved, probably within the next few years,” he said. “We will keep pushing Osaka to enact such an ordinance, though like the ban on smoking in subways, it may be the last major city in Japan to do so.”
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