With the stock market hitting 20-year lows and the economic outlook getting worse, Japan’s smokers have even more excuses to light up. Yet, in a country which has long been tolerant of tobacco use, a growing antismoking trend has made life for addicts more difficult.
To stem the rising tide, the nation’s sole tobacco maker heated up its own campaign Wednesday, opening its second smokers’ lounge in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, where a ban on lighting up on the street in designated neighborhoods took effect in October.
The new lounge, “Smokers’ style,” is in the Akihabara electronics district, and Japan Tobacco Inc. officials say they are considering opening more such facilities in the future.
Situated in a street-level corner of an office building, the 140-sq.-meter room is equipped with eight tabletop air-cleaners and vending machines that offer soft drinks and smoking paraphernalia. Company officials said it can accommodate up to 50 smokers at a time.
Basically, it is a bigger version of smoking rooms at airports, but the operator is going for a fancier image, with jazz emanating from speakers and framed posters on the walls.
“We opened the place to lessen the inconvenience experienced by smokers, as there are fewer places for them to enjoy smoking,” JT spokeswoman Yukiko Seto said.
JT’s first such lounge was “SmoCar,” a converted mobile home, in the Otemachi district.
Seto denied that the firm is merely trying to boost its sales by providing smoker-friendly salons. “We hope we can gain the understanding of nonsmokers by offering separate spaces for smokers.”
JT accounts for a 73 percent share of the domestic tobacco market and is majority-owned by the Japanese government.
“I am glad that they opened this place,” said a 54-year-old salaried worker, one of the lounge’s first visitors, as he lit up a cigarette.
The two-pack-a-day smoker, who asked not to be named, said he feels that society is harsh on people like him.
According to the man, who works nearby, smokers often find solidarity among strangers. “It’s funny, when I go to trade seminars and meet strangers, we all hesitate to be the first one to light up. But if someone does, we feel so relieved and everyone starts smoking.”
The man said Chiyoda Ward’s ban on street smoking only increased his stress level. “Every morning, I endure one hour on a packed commuter train, and I used to relax by smoking on the way from the station to the office.”
Yet Kazuo Hoshi, a 40-year-old public servant who dropped in while running errands, said smokers bear the responsibility for their hardships. “It cannot be helped, because there are smokers with bad manners.”
Still, he said he does not think about quitting, even though he has to smoke in a small kitchen area at work and gets disparaging looks from his family.
Nor is he discouraged by the 1 yen per cigarette tax hike due to take effect in July: “Well, I should think it’s a contribution to the country.”
According to Japan Tobacco, the aging smoking population and growing health concerns have been weakening cigarette demand, with domestic sales during the October-December term falling 4.9 percent from the previous year to 60 billion cigarettes.
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