May 31 marks World No Tobacco Day, but the prospect of Japan banning indoor smoking in time for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics looks hazier than ever.

With the last day of the current Diet session looming, the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry has faced fierce opposition from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in advancing a bill to curb passive smoking.

In a bid to win support from pro-tobacco LDP members, the health ministry in March watered down its plan to ban indoor smoking in public areas, proposing an exception for small restaurants. Still, the LDP has not shown any signs of making concessions, effectively blocking the government from submitting the bill to the current Diet session, which is scheduled to end June 18.

Considering that less than a month is left for Diet deliberations, the ministry’s plan to revise the Health Promotion Law and enforce a tobacco-free bill by the 2019 Rugby World Cup — a year before the 2020 Tokyo Olympics — may go up in smoke. Japan may remain a puffing paradise when thousands of foreign travelers come to enjoy the events.

“Japan could be the first (Olympic host) country since 2010 without a law to ban smoking inside public facilities,” Junko Mihara, an Upper House member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, told The Japan Times last week. “It would be a shame.”

Mihara said opinions over the draft bill are sharply divided among LDP members.

“Some keep insisting on their right to smoke,” she said. “But even though we explained that we are not trying to take away their right, they don’t seem to get it.”

A cervical cancer survivor, Mihara, a former actress, supports the draft bill.

“It should be a law to protect all people from secondhand smoke. … Cancer survivors live with the fear of recurrence every day. We even have nightmares about it. Imagine how they feel having no choice but to be in a place (where they are exposed to tobacco smoke).

“It’s really sad some people do not care about such feelings,” she said.

Mihara, however, is in the minority in the LDP, where 280 Diet members — nearly 70 percent of the party’s lawmakers — belong to its pro-tobacco group, headed by veteran lawmaker Takeshi Noda. The group opposes a smoking ban in public areas and instead promotes the separation of smoking and nonsmoking areas, known as bun’en.

To counter the health ministry’s draft bill, the pro-tobacco lawmakers’ group released on March 7 its “basic principles” on the issue of secondhand smoke prevention. It says both smokers who want to enjoy cigarettes and nonsmokers who don’t want to be exposed to secondhand smoke “should be protected under the constitutional right to pursue happiness.”

In order to respect the rights of both sides, the group calls on the country to become “a leading bun’en nation” rather than forbidding smoking in public facilities.

A government-sponsored bill must gain approval from the ruling camp before it is submitted to the Diet. As a first step, the health ministry’s bill needs a green light from the LDP’s health, labor and welfare panel, headed by Naomi Tokashiki. If the bill gets an OK from the panel, it then needs to be approved by the party’s general council. Once the general council approves the bill, all LDP members are obliged to support it in the Diet.

The draft bill, however, has yet to gain approval at the LDP health panel, where, as Mihara explained, many lawmakers turn a deaf ear to the need to combat passive smoking.

Komeito, the LDP’s junior coalition partner, supports the draft bill.

When it comes to smoke-free measures, Japan lags far behind other developed nations. Having no law to ban smoking in public facilities, Japan was among the countries in the lowest-graded group out of four in the World Health Organization’s report on the global tobacco epidemic released in 2015.

The 2003 Health Promotion Law, meanwhile, only calls on government entities and business operators to “make efforts” to prevent passive smoking at venues where large numbers of people gather. But the law did have some effect in nudging offices and facilities to create segregated smoking rooms and ban smoking indoors.

The number of smokers has also declined from 27.7 percent in 2003 to 18.2 percent in 2015, according to health ministry data.

Still, a ministry survey from 2015 found that more than 40 percent of respondents said they were exposed to secondhand smoke at restaurants, and 33 percent at entertainment facilities. The survey was directed at 5,327 households, of which 3,507 responded.

So for the health ministry, the 2019 Rugby World Cup and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics are the prime opportunities to realize its long-held goal of cracking down on secondhand smoke in public places.

But things are not looking bright.

“At least two years of preparation are needed to enforce the law. Considering that, if we fail to submit and enact the bill by the end of the current Diet session, we won’t be able to realize (a smoke-free environment) by the Rugby World Cup,” said Tokuaki Shobayashi, director of the health service division at the ministry.

Speaking at a Tokyo symposium on Saturday, Shobayashi said he and his peers visited nearly 400 LDP lawmakers, pleading with them to deliberate on the ministry’s draft bill at the party’s health panel.

The LDP panel finally held a meeting on May 15, more than two months after the ministry’s release of the revised draft bill. But again, the bill failed to gain support from the panel. The panel chairwoman, Tokashiki, was not available for comment for this article.

Behind the LDP’s stance is resistance against stiffer regulations on tobacco farmers and tobacco retail stores, who fear a ban on secondhand smoke will damage their businesses.

“It has to do with elections,” Mihara said. “I guess it would be difficult for lawmakers elected from districts with many tobacco farmers to approve the health ministry’s draft.”

Efforts to ban indoor smoking are also complicated by the more than ¥2 trillion that the central and local governments collect from tobacco taxes, as well as dividends from the 33.35 percent stake in Japan Tobacco stocks the Finance Ministry holds, experts say. In 2015, the ministry received more than ¥70 billion in dividends from its stock holdings.

Pushing for a smoke-free environment also contradicts the Tobacco Business Law, which calls for “promotion of sound development of the tobacco industry and thereby securing national revenues.”

Up to 15,000 people are estimated to die every year due to diseases such as lung cancer, heart disease and strokes caused by passive smoking, according to a health ministry report released last year. The report also said secondhand smoke increases the risk of developing lung cancer and strokes by 1.3 times and sudden infant death syndrome by 4.7 times.

Despite ample scientific evidence of health damage caused by passive smoking, policies reflecting this reality may be a difficult target.

“Japan is systematically endorsing passive smoking” despite evidence pointing to its harm, said Kota Katanoda, a researcher at the National Cancer Center Japan.

Last week, health minister Yasuhisa Shiozaki and Toshimitsu Motegi, chairman of the LDP’s Policy Research Council, met to discuss the bill and failed to find common ground.

“To tell you the truth, I don’t know what exactly they are discussing now. It’s very political. … It’s out of our hands already,” the health ministry’s Shobayashi said.

A Matter of Health is a weekly series on the latest health research, technology or policy issue in Japan. It appears on Thursdays.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.