National / Politics

LDP lawmakers draw battle lines over health ministry's anti-tobacco crusade

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

A group of Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers backing the health ministry’s push to crackdown on secondhand smoke held an emergency meeting on Wednesday in response to what they say is an “out-of-the-question” proposal unveiled a day earlier by pro-tobacco party members.

“Our heart is with the health ministry on this,” Akiko Santo, an anti-tobacco crusader in the ruling party, told reporters after the meeting in Nagata-cho — the nation’s political epicenter. “Given Japan’s efforts against passive smoking are among the worst in the world, we need to realize how detrimental secondhand smoke is to our health and prevent it through multiple measures.”

Santo and Toshiharu Furukawa, who is also a member of the group, voiced dismay at the proposal disclosed by pro-smoking LDP lawmakers that they say disregarded the health ministry’s attempt to stamp out secondhand smoke in public facilities.

According to the proposal, the pro-tobacco lobby under the LDP is calling for smoking to be tolerated in schools and hospitals provided a segregated smoking room is established, reports said. The group is also advocating for restaurants and bars to be allowed to decide to what extent smoking is banned at their premises.

“From the perspective of protecting people’s health, we must say the proposal is completely unacceptable,” said Furukawa. “It’s sure to draw harsh criticism from opposition parties and is nowhere near the global standard. It’s out of the question.”

As part of an effort to bring Japan — long seen as a bastion for smokers — in line with global standards in the lead-up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the health ministry in October unveiled a draft proposal calling for a ban on smoking in public spaces such restaurants, schools, hospitals and municipal offices.

But after facing fierce resistance from the restaurant industry and many in the LDP, the ministry offered a compromise last week, presenting a watered-down version of the initial draft.

According to the ministry’s latest plan, smoking would be condoned in small-sized bars with floor spaces up to 30 sq. meters on the condition that a ventilation system is put in place and a sign is displayed warning customers about the risks of secondhand smoke.

“The idea is that those tiny bars usually cater to regulars and you wouldn’t go to places like that unless you want to,” a health ministry official who declined to be named told The Japan Times. “Also, there is only a small number of employees involved, so the impact on (public) health would be limited, too.”

Staunch resistance to a smoking ban both within and outside the LDP has clouded the prospects of the revised Health Promotion Law being submitted to the ongoing Diet session. It was originally scheduled for the beginning of this month.

“How is a person like me who is a hard-core tobacco lover supposed to live if a ban on smoking is introduced across the board? I hope the revised bill is not submitted,” Wataru Takeshita, the LDP’s Diet affairs chief, reportedly told the news conference on Tuesday.