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Health ministry caves to LDP, shelves restaurant smoking ban vow

Kyodo, Staff Report

The health ministry on Friday decided not to include a pledge to ban smoking in restaurants in its long-term policy on cancer control, yielding to pressure from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party to leave the lax regulations intact.

The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry will still aim to eliminate smoking in government offices and medical institutions, officials said, as it seeks to implement tighter measures to counter passive smoking before Tokyo hosts the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics.

In line with the goals of the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the ministry will reduce the proportion of the population exposed to the risk of passive smoking to 15 percent or lower by fiscal 2022.

The ministry presented its final plan on smoking measures to a panel on Friday, with the six-year plan scheduled to start this fiscal year expected to be formally approved by the Cabinet next month.

The ministry had earlier sought to ban smoking in restaurants by 2020, exempting only small bars under the new six-year plan. But the LDP, backed by the tobacco and restaurant industries, has proposed that smoking be allowed as long as smoking and nonsmoking areas are clearly separated.

The six-year plan also aims to boost the cancer screening ratio to 50 percent and raise the ratio of suspected cancer patients who take detailed follow-up exams to 90 percent.

The ministry is also seeking revisions to the 2003 Health Promotion Law to ban smoking in public places in time for the Olympics. Currently, the law says operators must “make efforts” to curb passive smoking.

But it has not been able to introduce the revision bill to the Diet due to fierce opposition from the LDP’s pro-tobacco members. With less than a month left until the Diet closes, it is becoming increasingly difficult for Japan to ban indoor smoking before 2020.

The ministry estimates that about 15,000 people die annually in Japan from passive smoking, which is known to cause heart disease, stroke and lung cancer. With no law to ban public smoking, Japan was among the countries in the lowest-graded group out of four in the World Health Organization’s 2015 report on the global tobacco epidemic.

After the WHO and the International Olympic Committee agreed in 2010 to promote tobacco-free Olympic Games, all countries hosting the Olympics have implemented anti-tobacco regulations that include punishment, according to the ministry.