Legislation planned to address passive smoking by banning lighting up in restaurants is in limbo because of strife between the health ministry and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.
After an attempt to submit the bill to the Diet failed earlier this year, the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry hopes to submit one to the extra session expected to convene this fall.
Although Japan, host of the 2020 Olympics, lags behind many of its peers in steps to eradicate passive smoking, the prospects for a legislative compromise are dim.
“We were unable to hold sufficient science-based discussions,” health minister Yasuhisa Shiozaki said shortly after the 150-day Diet session ended in mid-June.
Shiozaki, who belongs to the LDP but is a key proponent of curbing second-hand smoking, read out a three-page statement explaining how Japan falls short in the area and what measures are needed, using data on global anti-smoking trends and the damage caused by passive smoking.
The health ministry in October 2016 proposed imposing an indoor smoking ban on restaurants in principle, that allowed them to set up smoking sections, but many of the LDP’s politicians protested the idea.
Tobacco farmers are traditionally major LDP supporters, and the party has a 280-strong group that lobbies heavily for smoking rights.
At a meeting of the LDP’s health policy board in February, one member said, “I have been smoking for more than 50 years but I’m healthy,” and another said, “Car exhaust is more harmful.”
The ministry made a concession and submitted a new proposal in March that suggested exempting small bars with up to 30 sq. meters of floor space from the proposed indoor smoking ban.
The LDP demanded the exemption be expanded to restaurants and bars of up to 150 sq. meters on condition they put up signs saying smoking is allowed, or if they set up separate smoking areas. But this would effectively leave most of the nation’s restaurants exempt.
Shiozaki also suggested introducing a grace period for anti-smoking measures and held talks with Toshimitsu Motegi, chairman of the LDP’s policy board.
But they failed to iron out their differences, and the ministry was unable to formulate a bill to revise the health promotion law, which currently leaves measures against passive smoking up to bar and restaurant operators.
The health hazards of passive smoking are widely known. The National Cancer Center says those exposed have a 1.3-fold greater chance of lung cancer or stroke than those not exposed.
An estimated 15,000 deaths a year are attributed to passive smoking in Japan, which is roughly four times the number of annual traffic fatalities.
Researchers estimate that the additional medical expenses caused by the effects of secondhand smoke amount to more than ¥300 billion ($2.7 billion) per year.
LDP politicians opposed to the ministry’s push stress that tobacco growers and the right to smoke must be protected, as must related tax revenues estimated to be worth about ¥2 trillion annually.
They also point out that restaurants and bars could lose revenue after such a ban.
An Aichi Prefectural Government survey of nonsmoking restaurants, however, found that 95 percent of them reported no change and that those that did saw a drop of only 4 percent.
Family restaurant chain Royal Host introduced a total smoking ban in 2013. While revenue initially contracted at some restaurants, it rebounded roughly three months later, an official of the chain said. Some customers patronize the chain simply because smoking is now prohibited, the official said.
The health ministry showed the data to the LDP holdouts, but they “didn’t give a damn,” a senior ministry official said.
The Japan Society for Tobacco Control and its supporters have begun a petition to urge Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to retain Shiozaki as health minister when he reshuffles his Cabinet as expected in early August.
Without Shiozaki in the Cabinet, “the party will take the initiative and water down the measures” to counter second-hand smoking, an LDP lawmaker said.
Opposing the legislation “is not a failure to act but an act of murder,” said Hiroshi Yamato, a professor at the University of Occupational and Environmental Health who is well-versed in the issue.
Measures against passive smoking will “get nowhere if they are left to people’s own initiative, as in the case of seatbelts,” Yamato said. “To protect life, it is absolutely necessary for the state to make the adoption of them legally mandatory.”