Amid global moves to tighten controls on smoking, the Health and Welfare Ministry, nongovernnmental organizations and other groups will hold various events in Japan to mark World No Tobacco Day on May 31.

The private sector in Japan has made considerable progress in restricting smoking in recent years. Television broadcasters have eliminated tobacco commercials, and Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways have banned smoking on all international flights.

However, the government has been dragging its feet in controlling smoking, favoring smokers rather than nonsmokers. This is obvious in guidelines for improving the nation’s health in the 21st century, published by the Health and Welfare Ministry in March.

Originally, the ministry’s guidelines proposed a target of halving both the adult smoking rate and the per-capita cigarette consumption by 2010. But facing stiff opposition from Japan Tobacco Inc., tobacco growers and Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers representing the tobacco lobby, the ministry watered down the plan. The new plan featured a “slogan” — instead of a “target” — of halving the smoking rate as part of national efforts to reduce smoking. Without petitions from antismoking NGOs, the slogan would not have been included in the guidelines.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in a 1990 document titled “Healthy People 2000,” set a target of reducing the adult smoking rate to 15 percent, down 48 points, by 2000. I am disappointed by LDP lawmakers who represent the tobacco lobby and Health and Welfare Ministry officials who lack determination to push smoking restrictions.

The Labor Ministry is required to control smoking to protect workers’ health and clean up the work environment. In 1996, the ministry published its first guidelines for restricting workplace smoking. But the guidelines were nonsense: They gave equal treatment to smokers and nonsmokers. The guidelines said, for example, that smokers and nonsmokers “should respect each others’ positions” and that “behaviorial standards” for smokers and nonsmokers should be established.

It is unclear how smokers’ views should be respected and what behaviorial standards nonsmokers should observe. The Japanese guidelines are a far cry from U.S. laws to restrict smoking.

A 1985 law enacted by the city assembly of Aspen, Colorado, says that in any workplace disputes regarding smoking guidelines, nonsmokers’ rights take precedence. The Japanese Labor Ministry guidelines, in contrast, appear to be designed to protect smokers’ rights.

The Transport Ministry has made little effort to restrict smoking in transport industries. However, subways, private railways and JR railways have banned smoking in commuter trains and on boarding platforms, except in designated areas. Airlines ban smoking on both international and domestic flights.

But nonsmoking taxis account for only 0.1 percent of all taxis running in Japan because the Transport Ministry and taxi companies are reluctant to restrict smoking. Some taxi companies have nonsmoking rules, but these apply to drivers and not to passengers. To ban smoking by passengers, taxi operators must have their transport contracts revised; refusing a smoking fare without revising contracts would invite punishment from the ministry for illegally refusing a passenger.

Responding to my query as to why it did not encourage no-smoking taxis, a Transport Ministry official said taxis are basically chartered vehicles. This position gives no consideration to nonsmoking drivers.

In New York, Paris, Beijing, Hong Kong and other foreign cities, smoking is banned in taxis. Japan is among the few industrial countries that allow smoking in taxis. This is nothing but negligence on the part of transport administrators.

Finally, the biggest problem regarding smoking restrictions is that the Finance Ministry is the largest shareholder in JT, the nation’s only cigarette manufacturer. The ministry, which has the authority to give orders to the company regarding a health warning on cigarette packages and tobacco ads, has little interest in protecting public health.

The warning on JT cigarette packages says, “Be careful not to smoke too much because smoking can be injurious to your health.” This warning could give the impression that moderate smoking causes no problems, and does not reflect epidemiological evidence that smoking causes cancer. The World No Tobacco Day slogan adopted by the World Health Organization is, “Don’t be duped. Tobacco kills.” Japanese cigarette packages should carry a more serious warning.

The death on May 3 of composer Yoshinao Nakada, chief of the Association of Children’s Song Writers in Japan and a strong antismoking advocate, is a great loss. He used to say that air, which is essential to human life, should not be polluted with tobacco smoke. He was unusual among Japanese composers, novelists and intellectuals, many of whom are critical of the antismoking campaign. I hope that like-minded intellectuals will take up the campaign Nakada promoted.

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