April marks the beginning of the business year, and for Tokyo-area train stations, a breath of fresher air.

Starting Wednesday, most metropolitan East Japan Railway Co. train stations will go completely smoke free, and platform ashtrays are being removed from 201 JR East stations on 17 lines, including the Yamanote, Chuo, Sobu and Keihin Tohoku lines.

The northern end of the smoking-free zone is Toride Station on the Joban Line in Ibaraki Prefecture, the southern end Zushi on the Yokosuka Line in Kanagawa Prefecture, the western end Takao on the Chuo Line in Tokyo and the eastern end Soga on the Keiyo Line in Chiba Prefecture.

The smoke-free zone covers a radius of 40 to 50 km.

Most railways running through Tokyo had already prohibited smoking by 2003, when the Health Promotion Law took effect, pressing public facilities to establish measures to prevent exposure to secondhand tobacco smoke.

JR East stations are the last to join the nonsmoking ranks. Because its lines are the main arteries of the metropolis, antismoking groups say this marks a major step in preventing people from being exposed to secondhand smoke.

“It’s only natural that smoking gets banned at stations. This is a global trend,” said Dr. Manabu Sakuta, chairman of the Japan Society for Tobacco Control. “I welcome the fact that Japan has finally joined the group.”

According to JR East, the railway had tried to reduce the secondhand smoke risk by demarcating just one small smoking area per platform and prohibiting smoking even there during rush hour. But many nonsmokers were still exposed, and upset.

“We received many complaints from nonsmokers who were very concerned about passive smoking,” a JR East spokesman said of the carrier’s December decision to initiate the ban.

Sakuta said dividing smoking and nonsmoking areas is not enough to prevent exposure to passive smoking.

“If one person smokes, the secondhand smoke can reach a radius of 7 meters,” he said. “This means separate smoking areas are not effective in preventing passive smoking.”

Central Japan Railway Co. (JR Tokai) initiated a smoking ban at some 390 stations on March 14, and West Japan Railway Co. made the Osaka Loop Line and Yumesaki Line stations smoking-free in October.

At Shinagawa Station in Tokyo, smokers who had gathered around an ashtray at the end of the Keihin Tohoku Line platform were resigned to the loss of their tobacco stand.

“I’m not against the decision, because I do understand that smoke is annoying for those who don’t smoke,” a 20-year-old university student said. “It’s also not a big problem for me because I don’t smoke that much.”

A 47-year-old Niigata Prefecture man in Tokyo on business said he was getting used to searching for smoking areas and can deal with the total ban.

“I come to Tokyo often on the Joetsu Shinkansen, which is completely nonsmoking (since March 2007). I can manage,” he said. “It used to be hard when the bans started (around 2003), but now it’s clearer where we can smoke. So even if this is gone, I’m sure we smokers will find somewhere to go.”

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