The World Health Organization calls smoking “one of the biggest public health threats the world has ever faced.”

The U.N.-affiliated organization says 5.4 million people die from tobacco use every year, and it is the cause of death of one in 10 adults.

Japan may have one of the highest life expectancies in the world, but the nation is also a major consumer of cigarettes.

Although the smoking rate has been in decline over the past decade, critics say antismoking measures in Japan are lagging far behind other industrialized countries.

What is the current smoking rate in Japan?

Health ministry data from 2006, the most recent national survey available, showed that 23.8 percent of the population were smokers.

Smoking among men declined from 43.3 percent in 2004 to 39.9 percent, while the figure for women eased from 12 percent in 2004 to 10 percent in 2006.

But a 2008 survey by Japan Tobacco Inc. revealed that 39.5 percent of males and 12.9 percent of females still smoke.

Japan had the fourth-highest rate of cigarette consumption in the world in 2007, according to The Tobacco Atlas, published earlier this month by the World Lung Foundation and the American Cancer Society.

China ranked the highest in terms of tobacco use, accounting for 2.163 trillion cigarettes, followed by the United States with 357 billion, Russia with 331 billion and Japan with 259 billion.

How many different types of cigarettes are there in Japan?

There are no official data available, but JT, the nation’s only tobacco manufacturer, offers 94 products. In fiscal 2007, JT handled about 65 percent of the cigarettes sold in Japan.

Some of JT’s biggest sellers include Mild Seven, Caster, Seven Star and the foreign brands Winston and Camel. But there are a lot more imported products that JT does not cover, including Marlboro, Kent, Lark and Lucky Strike.

Is JT run by the government or is it a private corporation?

JT is now a joint stock company, but 50.02 percent of its shares are owned by the government. It was formerly a government-run monopoly but was privatized in 1985.

Although named Japan Tobacco, the company is also involved in pharmaceuticals and food products. However, more than 80 percent of its net sales, excluding taxes, for fiscal 2007 came from its domestic and overseas tobacco business.

How much do cigarettes cost in Japan?

Prices vary according to brand, but many 20-cigarette packs sell for ¥300, with taxes accounting for more than 60 percent of the cost.

This tax rate compares with 46.2 percent for beer and 37.3 percent for gasoline, according to JT.

How does the price in Japan compare with other parts of the world?

According to the Japan Society for Tobacco Control, a nonprofit organization made up of various specialists, including doctors, academics, activists and legal experts, the price of tobacco products in other countries is about two to four times that of Japan. An annual report issued by the organization last October showed a pack of Marlboro Red cost ¥300 in Tokyo in July. The same pack sold for about ¥1,300 in England and ¥1,080 in New York.

Has the government tried to raise the tobacco tax?

The government was considering a tax hike to secure a stable source of revenue to cover snowballing social security costs. But the idea was shot down by strong voices of protest within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which gets a lot of support from tobacco shops and farmers.

The government last raised the levy by ¥1 per cigarette in 2006, after doing likewise in 2003.

Lawmakers across party lines, including former LDP Secretary General Hidenao Nakagawa and Seiji Maehara, former head of the Democratic Party of Japan, formed a group last June to study tobacco issues and health.

The group attracted media attention when it suggested hiking the price of a pack of cigarettes to ¥1,000.

What legislation is in place against smoking?

Enacted in 2002, the Health Promotion Law aims to curb exposure to secondhand smoke.

The law stipulates that managers of public places, including schools, hospitals, theaters, department stores and restaurants, “must make efforts to take necessary action to prevent passive smoking.” But the law provides no punishment for noncompliance.

Japan signed the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control in 2004, which took effect the following year.

As a result, Japan increased the size of the warning label on a pack of cigarettes to cover at least 30 percent of the surface area, and added the phrase “smoking causes lung cancer.”

The FCTC calls on member parties to take comprehensive action “at the national, regional and international levels” by taking into consideration “the need to take measures to protect all persons from exposure to tobacco smoke.”

What antismoking steps have been taken?

Kanagawa Prefecture, under the leadership of Gov. Shigefumi Matsuzawa, is in the process of establishing a law to ban smoking in certain areas.

The proposal was originally meant to ban smoking in any public place, including bars and restaurants. That would have been a first for Japan.

But the measure was watered down after strong opposition from restaurant and bar owners.

The current draft of the bill, which is expected to be approved by the prefectural assembly possibly Tuesday, bans smoking in schools, hospitals, department stores and libraries.

However, it only requests that bars, restaurants, hotels, karaoke establishments and other public venues either ban smoking outright or create designated smoking areas.

Starting April 1, smoking will be banned on Tokyo-area station platforms. JR East plans to remove the smoking areas on station platforms in Tokyo and parts of Saitama, Kanagawa, Chiba and Ibaraki prefectures.

A recent major development was the introduction of taspo cards, an age verification IC card to prevent underage smoking.

Since July, all cigarette machines have been required to be equipped with taspo card readers.

Taxi companies have also started to ban smoking. Dr. Manabu Sakuta, chairman of the Japan Society for Tobacco Control and a visiting professor of neurology at Kyorin University, says that 70 percent of taxis in Japan now are nonsmoking.

Why does Japan lag behind other industrialized countries in curbing smoking?

One major reason is that under the law, the government must hold at least half of all JT shares — something “unheard of” in other countries, Sakuta said.

JT-related issues and laws meanwhile fall under the jurisdiction of the Finance Ministry, not the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry.

Another key factor is the Tobacco Business Law, which aims “to strive for healthy development of our country’s tobacco industry and secure a stable source of financial income to contribute to the sound development of the economy.”

Critics say this law completely contradicts the WHO’s framework convention, which urges member states to take measures “to reduce consumption of all tobacco products at the national, regional and international levels.”

The Weekly FYI appears Tuesdays (Wednesday in some areas). Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to National News Desk

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