During the five years since a landmark suit against tobacco manufacturers and the government was filed, slight but steady progress has been made in regulating cigarette sales and advertising.

It has been 40 years since the world woke up to the dangers of smoking and started encouraging people to kick the habit.

Yet Japan still has the world’s fourth-highest percentage of adult smokers, according to the American Cancer Society.

According to a survey released last year by Japan Tobacco Inc., the nation’s former state tobacco monopoly, 49.1 percent of adult men and 14 percent of women were smokers as of May 2002.

The number of cigarette vending machines, which critics say contribute to a rise in smoking among minors, has steadily increased, according to the Japan Vending Machine Manufacturers Association.

The number of machines stood at 495,900 in 1992 but had risen to 629,000 by the end of 2002, the association said.

Experts say the primary factor underlying the slow progress of smoking regulation in Japan is the fact that the tobacco industry operates under the jurisdiction of the Finance Ministry — not the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry.

Under the Tobacco Industry Law, the Finance Ministry must protect the tobacco industry, ensuring its “sound development” and a “stable supply of tax revenue.”

Despite mounting scientific evidence that smoking damages people’s health, the health ministry has thus far been reluctant to impose any regulations on tobacco sales.

In a report released in 2000, the ministry estimated that 95,000 smokers who would have survived had they kicked the habit died in Japan in 1995, based on epidemic studies.

A research body affiliated with the ministry once estimated that tobacco-related health-care costs run to 1.2 trillion yen per year.

Yet the ministry has been hesitant to implement practical measures aimed at curbing the number of smokers. For example, the ministry allocated just 28 million yen in the fiscal 2003 budget toward government programs aimed at educating the public about the dangers of smoking and drinking alcohol.

Throughout the tobacco trial, the ministry maintained this ambivalent attitude.

Despite earlier reports detailing the various health hazards posed by smoking, ministry officials refused to either support or rebuff the plaintiffs’ claims regarding their health problems.

Meanwhile, Japan Tobacco, the world’s third-largest tobacco manufacturer, has claimed both inside and outside the courtroom that smoking tobacco is just one “risk factor” that may cause cancer or other diseases, along with air pollution, stress, diet and hereditary factors.

It also said it believes smokers develop only a minimal psychological and physical addiction to nicotine, stating that smokers can use will power to quit any time they want.

During one trial session in 2001, Toshihide Tsuda, an epidemiologist at the state-run Okayama University, testified about the causal links between smoking and lung and throat cancer and pulmonary emphysema.

He criticized what he described as the health ministry’s negligence in combating the tobacco issue, saying it has killed tens of thousands of people annually.

“The ministry had some of its officials arrested for killing 500 hemophiliacs by neglecting its duty to stop the use of HIV-contaminated blood products for three or four years (in the HIV debacle in the 1980s),” Tsuda noted. “But in the case of tobacco smoking, it has neglected its duty for 30 or 40 years and killed tens of thousands of people annually.

“Who knows how many people should be arrested for this?”

In the Health Promotion Law, which took effect in May, the ministry finally introduced strict regulations in respect to passive smoking, compelling owners and managers of restaurants, schools, public facilities and other places used by large numbers of people to take necessary measures to protect people from passive smoke.

In accordance with the law, various municipalities and corporations have moved to ban smoking in public spaces.

In the same month, the World Health Organization adopted the first global treaty on the matter, the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which will regulate sales, labeling and advertising of tobacco products.

Together with the United States and Germany, Japan held out against tough provisions until the closing stages of the WHO talks, though it now plans to ratify the convention.

In line with the provisions of the convention, a Finance Ministry panel on tobacco policies decided earlier this month to require packaging of tobacco products to carry stronger health warnings than the current “Please be careful not to smoke too much,” beginning in July 2005.

The new warnings must occupy at least 30 percent of the space on each side of a tobacco package, specifically stating that smoking increases the risk of death from diseases such as lung cancer and from heart attacks.

The Finance Ministry panel has also started discussing tighter regulations on tobacco advertising, such as bans on TV ads, ads on public transportation vehicles and the distribution of free samples on streets.

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