National

Health ministry gears up for possible ban on smoking in public areas

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

The health ministry is considering a legal revision to ban smoking in public areas to help bring Japan’s battle against secondhand smoke in line with the global standard ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, an official said Tuesday.

It remains unclear, however, how forceful a step the ministry can take toward stamping out the nation’s long-standing tolerance of secondhand smoke in public facilities, as it faces staunch resistance from those in the restaurant and hotel industries who cater to smokers.

The ministry is currently in the process of mapping out details on an amendment it hopes to submit to the Diet during this legislative session, possibly as soon as early March, an official in charge of health service said, declining to be named.

The envisioned amendment features a ban on smoking in a gamut of public institutions from schools and hospitals to municipal offices, eateries and hotels.

The current Health Promotion Law only stipulates that operators of these facilities need to “make efforts” to prevent secondhand smoke and imposes no penalty on violators.

For the first time ever, the revision in the works would seek to change that, slapping business operators with an as yet undetermined fine for failing to declare their premises a no-smoking zone or carry out other necessary measures, the official said, adding that details have yet to be finalized.

Smokers who ignore the ban would also be penalized, he said.

The amendment will likely hew to a draft proposal unveiled by the ministry last October that proposed a three-tier ban on public smoking.

The draft said institutions frequented by minors and the elderly, such as hospitals and schools, should be subject to the strictest of bans, with their entire premises designated as a nonsmoking zone.

A slightly less stringent rule, the draft said, should apply to places such as municipal offices, universities and stadiums, where people will be prohibited from smoking as long as they are indoors.

Among facilities subject to the laxest anti-smoking efforts would be restaurants, hotels, inns and train stations, which the draft said should have segregated smoking rooms to minimize the effect of passive smoking.

The move toward a ban on smoking in public facilities heralds a critical step toward Japan becoming a responsible country as it hosts the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, as per the so-called Tobacco Free Olympics concept jointly adopted by the World Health Organization and the International Olympic Committee in 2010.

But when it comes to combating passive smoking, Japan has long been seen as a bastion for smokers.

In a 2015 report, the WHO judged Japan’s effort to eradicate secondhand smoke as one of the weakest, citing a lack of legislation to ensure smoke-free environments in public places such as health care facilities, restaurants and public transport.

This belies the nation’s membership in the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, to which it became a signatory in 2004, and its purported commitment to ridding public places of secondhand smoke.

The tepid crackdown partly stems from deep-seated resistance from business operators who cater to smokers.

An extensive hearing conducted by the health ministry last year revealed concerns from owners of small-scale restaurants that they cannot afford to install segregated smoking rooms as proposed by the ministry’s October draft, the official said.

But in a country where worn-out salarymen looking for an escape from the stress of work and home often seek refuge in the company of bar hostesses, the problem could even be cultural.

The official said that during the hearing one individual told the ministry: “Smoking, alcohol and bar hostesses are an inseparable trio.”