When I want a coffee I seek out Starbucks, not because I think it has the best product, but because it’s the only coffee shop I know of that’s 100 percent nonsmoking. Almost all others in Japan have separate smoking and nonsmoking sections, which are useless in terms of keeping smoke away from people who don’t want to breathe it. Generally speaking, inhaling secondhand smoke is the norm for eating and drinking establishments in Japan, where smokers are allowed to light up almost anywhere as long as they observe “manners.” Here, the division between smokers and nonsmokers is not considered a matter of health, but one of civility.

That’s why it’s unlikely Tokyo will pass a law prohibiting smoking in all indoor public spaces before the 2020 Olympic Games, despite the fact that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) demands not only that venues for the games be smoke-free, but that the entire host city be smoke-free. Since the dawn of the millennium every city except Tokyo that has held or will hold the Olympics has outlawed smoking in indoor public spaces, including Athens, Beijing and Pyeongchang, all of which are in countries with higher smoking rates than Japan’s.

Last fall the health ministry came up with a “foundation” for new “guidelines” to address the problem of secondhand smoke. At present, Japanese law simply says that businesses and managers of public spaces must “make an effort” to prevent nonsmokers from breathing smoke-filled air, which is why separate smoking sections is considered sufficient. A recent edition of the NHK news shows “Closeup Gendai” showed a representative of the World Health Organization inspecting a family restaurant in Tokyo that had installed an “air curtain” to keep smoke from drifting into the nonsmoking section, but the representative explained that the technology doesn’t work.

The NHK report was typical of the media’s handling of the issue. Although it showed how the family restaurant’s efforts were ineffective in solving the secondhand smoke problem, in an attempt at fairness it also visited a bar where everyone smoked. If smoking is banned in such places, the proprietor said, he would lose all his customers, thus suggesting that many eating and drinking establishments would go out of business if a blanket anti-smoking law were enforced in Tokyo. NHK didn’t bother to go to Starbucks, which seems to be doing fine with such a rule; or, for that matter, Tokyo drinking establishments that actually ban smoking, which are rare but nevertheless do exist.

The health ministry guidelines were drawn up in response to an earlier study that estimates 15,000 nonsmoking Japanese will die each year due to the effects of secondhand smoke. Of married couples in which one spouse smokes and the other doesn’t, the latter has a 28 percent higher chance of contracting lung cancer than does a nonsmoking spouse whose partner does not smoke, not to mention a 29 percent higher chance of stroke and 23 percent higher chance of cardiovascular disease. However, while these statistics have been publicized in the press, countermeasures have not been discussed in a realistic way.

The obstacle is the Liberal Democratic Party faction in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly. Two years ago, when then-Gov. Yoichi Masuzoe proposed a regulation to prohibit smoking in public spaces expressly as a response to the IOC, LDP assembly members blocked it, citing the belief that all dining and boozing operations would go bankrupt. They could do this because the central government, which is controlled by the LDP, has their back. The Finance Ministry, which is more powerful than the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Labor, has a stake in the prosperity of Japan Tobacco, since the government holds one-third of Japan Tobacco stock and collects a lot of money from taxes on cigarettes. Consequently, many Finance Ministry bureaucrats retire to cushy jobs at Japan Tobacco. These facts are not secret, but the media sidesteps them in its coverage of the smoking situation.

The only press outlet to report recently on the apparent collusion between media and Japan Tobacco is the right-wing magazine Sentaku. The onus of the July 2016 article in question was placed mainly on the Mainichi Shimbun, which is thought to occupy a center-left position.

On Jan. 28, 2016, the Mainichi ran an interview with a doctor who claimed that the “stress” from quitting cigarettes might be more harmful than cigarettes themselves. According to an anonymous ad executive quoted by Sentaku, the Mainichi article was “worth much more than any paid advertisement” to Japan Tobacco and the newspaper subsequently ran at least one Japan Tobacco ad a month. The Mainichi even ran an ad for Mevius cigarettes. Although cigarette ads are not illegal in Japan, newspapers voluntarily stopped running them on principle more than two decades ago. The Sankei Shimbun ran the same Mevius ad after publishing an article about Japan Tobacco’s “separate smoking section consulting business” and its promotion of “peaceful coexistence between smokers and nonsmokers.”

Sentaku also asserted that on May 31, 2016, which was U.N. World No Tobacco Day as well as the day the health ministry was set to announce its secondhand smoke findings, only the Asahi Shimbun and Sankei Shimbun carried the ministry’s announcement due to pressure from Japan Tobacco and advertising giant Dentsu. Japan Tobacco spends ¥20 billion a year on advertising, almost all of which promotes “manners.” The real reason, according to Sentaku, that Japan Tobacco buys space and air time is to quash anti-smoking reporting by making media dependent on JT-related ad revenue.

On Jan. 6, however, the Mainichi dedicated a full page to the dangers of smoking centered on a piece by columnist Hiroshi Fuse that blasted Japan’s cigarette-tolerant public stance, saying it was hypocritical and “shamed Japan before the world.”

As long as the press uses a market-based revenue model, there will always be conflicts such as these between sales and editorial divisions, but in any case only in Japan is smoking considered a right.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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