National / Science & Health

Health ministry unveils draft proposal to crack down on secondhand smoke ahead of 2020 Olympics

by Mizuho Aoki

Staff Writer

In a bid to crack down on secondhand smoke ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics amid a global trend toward a cleaner environment, Japan is set to ban smoking in more places and impose penalties on offenders for the first time.

Under a draft proposal the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry compiled Wednesday, smoking will be completely banned indoors at public facilities such as stadiums, government offices and welfare institutions. At schools and medical facilities where minors and patients visit, smoking will be banned both indoors and outdoors.

As for places such as restaurants, offices and hotels, where people often inhale secondhand smoke, the proposal is somewhat ambiguous, stating that smoking will be prohibited “in principle.”

But such facilities will still be allowed to let people smoke if a segregated smoking room is provided.

The ministry plans to draw up bills and submit them to the Diet as early as next year to oblige smokers and facility owners to follow the new rules, barring which penalties would be imposed.

A health promotion law requires operators of facilities to “make efforts” to combat passive smoking, but there are currently no penalties for failing to do so.

Hiroshi Yamato, a doctor at the University of Occupational and Environmental Health in Kitakyushu, who is an expert on smoking, welcomed the proposal by calling it an important first step for Japan to attain international standards, as it still lags behind other industrialized nations in terms of measures against passive smoking.

“Ideally speaking, Japan should totally ban smoking at all facilities without allowing people to smoke in segregated spaces … But the content of the released draft is a good step forward to reaching that goal,” Yamato told The Japan Times.

If such rules are enforced, small restaurants with insufficient space or budget to set up a segregated smoking area will have no choice but to ban smoking outright at their facilities, Yamato said.

“If those facilities realize it can lure more customers by going tobacco-free, others may follow suit,” Yamato said. “After all, these days some 80 percent of Japanese are non-smokers.”

Going tobacco-free is a global trend, Yamato said.

For example, Beijing banned smoking at public facilities in 1996. Later in 2008, when the city hosted the Summer Olympics, it extended the ban to sports facilities, and today smoking is prohibited in restaurants as well, he said.

In an ideal world, it is best to ditch segregated smoking rooms and make all indoor areas tobacco-free, Yamato said, because even with separate smoking rooms, smoke will still leak out every time someone opens the door, and the people who clean such rooms cannot avoid inhaling secondhand smoke, he said.

The National Cancer Center released a report in August showing the risk of developing lung cancer was 1.3 times higher for those who inhale secondhand smoke compared to those who don’t.

A health ministry report released earlier this year also estimated that secondhand smoking causes around 15,000 deaths annually in this country.

According to the ministry’s 2013 survey, the number of smokers in Japan declined for the 10th consecutive year to 19.3 percent, compared to 27.7 percent in a 2003 survey.

The same survey also found that the percentage of people who had experienced secondhand smoke over the past month showed a decline over 10 years.

However, the number of people who found themselves exposed to secondhand smoke remained above 30 percent at restaurants, offices and recreation facilities.