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Olympic embarrassment: Japan falls way short in banning public smoking ahead of 2020 Games

Kyodo

The government’s recently unveiled anti-smoking plan has sparked an outcry from lung cancer patients and other activists because it leaves a gaping loophole that basically allows customers in restaurants and bars to continue lighting up.

The plan released Jan. 30 by the health ministry backpedaled from its initial goal of introducing a total ban on indoor smoking to prevent passive smoking in public spaces ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Strong opposition from the tobacco and restaurant industries, as well as the government’s addiction to tax revenue from cigarettes, won out.

Japan is among the lowest-ranked countries in terms of tobacco control, with no smoke-free law covering indoor public spaces. The new measure will protect minors and hospital patients from secondhand smoke, but in doing so will cover only four of the eight types of public facilities by which the World Health Organization measures anti-smoking steps.

Fifty-five countries, including recent Olympic hosts Britain, Canada, Russia and Brazil, have banned indoor smoking in all eight types of public places, including schools, medical institutions, offices, restaurants, bars and public transportation.

A group of lung cancer patients has fiercely protested the latest government plan, saying it is a “reversion” of the global trend to tighten smoking control. In Japan, more than 80 percent of the population are nonsmokers and an estimated 15,000 people die annually from secondhand smoke, according to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry.

But Tokuaki Shobayashi, a senior official in the ministry, said the government needs to take “a first step” with this modest plan because a tougher bill would be rejected in the Diet by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which is supported by the tobacco and restaurant industries.

Some LDP members have urged the ministry to recognize “the right to smoke.”

Shobayashi drafted a bill 17 years ago that would have urged restaurant managers and other facility operators to “make efforts” to prevent secondhand smoking. He was denounced by both the pro-smoking LDP and by anti-smoking bodies, which wanted stricter regulations.

Following negotiations with the LDP, the health ministry in its latest effort made compromises and decided under the new plan to permit smoking in restaurants and bars if they set up special rooms for exclusive use by smokers where no food or drinks are served.

The ministry is currently negotiating with the LDP over the scope of restaurants and bars that will be exempt from this requirement.

It initially planned to exempt eateries with a floor space of up to 30 square meters but is now leaning toward expanding the scope to those with a floor space of up to 150 square meters.

In the exempted facilities, smoking will be allowed if they display a sign indicating it is a “smoking space.” Pro-smoking people say customers who shun tobacco can simply choose not to enter these places.

However, Kazuo Hasegawa, chairman of the Japan Lung Cancer Alliance, said his group’s survey has revealed many people reluctantly go to such facilities and suffer from passive smoking.

“According to the questionnaire of patients, many people found it hard to turn down requests by their bosses or clients to go to restaurants where smoking is allowed on such occasions as farewell and year-end parties,” he said.

Some traditional izakaya pub chains, which serve drinks and light meals, are worried about the ministry’s new anti-smoking plan.

Watami Co., which operates more than 400 restaurants across the country, has already established a “smoking box” in some outlets, but in most cases these are merely separate seating sections, with no physical partitions.

A Watami official expressed dismay over the new rules but said the company will obey them when they are finalized.

Another izakaya operator, Monteroza Co., said, “We cannot take action (until) the criteria are clearly set for eateries that must set up a special smoking area.”

Meanwhile, Italian restaurant chain Saizeriya Co., which runs more than 1,000 outlets throughout Japan, said it will basically ban smoking at tables by September 2019.

Whether a smoking ban affects sales in restaurants or bars remains open to question.

After analyzing a number of studies in developed countries, the U.S. National Cancer Institute and other organizations concluded last year that a smoking ban does not decrease customers or lower the productivity of smoking staff who need to go somewhere off-site to puff.

Ahead of the 2020 Olympics, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government had been exploring more stringent tobacco control measures than those in the national government’s plan, with the aim of implementing them before the Rugby World Cup next year, which will be held in venues across Japan.

Under reform-minded Gov. Yuriko Koike, the metropolitan government unveiled a basic plan last September to ban all indoor smoking in almost all public places. However, restaurants and bars with a floor area of up to 30 square meters would have been exempt if they obtained consent from all employees who have to work in the smoking environment.

The plan drew more opposition than support from the public, leading the metropolitan government to postpone submitting a draft ordinance to the assembly when it meets later this month.

The governor “hesitated over whether to propose a strict anti-smoking plan to the metropolitan assembly in February,” even before the health ministry’s new measure was released in late January, a senior metropolitan official said.

Koike, once considered a rising star to challenge Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s LDP when she founded the opposition Kibo no To (Party of Hope) before last October’s general election, has seen her political influence quickly wither following the party’s lackluster performance at the ballot box. She later resigned as head of the party.

“Her political career would be terminated if (the anti-smoking) ordinance is rejected by the metropolitan assembly,” a metropolitan official.

The metropolitan government is now considering relaxing the planned tobacco regulations in the hope they will be accepted by restaurants and bars run by individuals worried about the possible negative sales impact.

Hasegawa of the lung cancer patient group deplored such a move.

“It is embarrassing that we see a series of setbacks,” he said. “I wonder whether (Tokyo is) truly entitled to host the Olympic Games.”