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The member-nations of the World Health Organization have recently approved a draft Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), putting an end to four years of negotiations. The draft is expected to be adopted at the general meeting of the WHO in May, and will take effect after 40 countries have ratified it.

To gain the participation of as many countries as possible, the draft convention went no further than listing control targets. As a result, concrete measures to control smoking were left to the discretion of individual countries, and the pact has only a weak binding force.

For example, Japan’s opposition to restricting the use of words like “mild” and “light” resulted in the convention stating that such expressions may be restricted but only pursuant to domestic laws. Similarly, concerning cigarette vending machines, the draft FCTC only says that a signatory nation may take steps to prevent minors from using such machines or to prohibit the installation of new vending machines.

Nongovernmental organizations opposed to smoking have complained that pressure from the tobacco industry and the governments of Japan, the United States and Germany has taken the teeth out of the convention. Japanese NGOs, in particular, have no alternative but to ask the government to tighten restrictions on smoking, using the provisions of the convention as minimum requirements.

U.S. selfishness was conspicuous in the course of the negotiations. America has long been known for taking strong measures against its domestic tobacco industry. In negotiating an international treaty to control smoking, however, the U.S., along with Japan, played a principal role in watering down restrictions.

The fact that only 25.7 percent of male adults in America smoke — the lowest ratio in the Group of Seven industrialized nations — helps explain the inconsistencies of U.S. policy. The U.S. appears to be trying to sell more tobacco products abroad to compensate for its shrinking domestic market.

The U.S. used similar tactics in the 1980s. Wielding the threat of economic sanctions, Washington demanded countries like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand to open up their tobacco markets.

Japan Tobacco Inc. has also focused on foreign markets. Foreseeing a shrinking domestic market, JT acquired the overseas tobacco division of RJR Nabisco Inc. in 1999 in an attempt to expand sales in other countries where people have not yet become keenly aware of the harmful effects of smoking.

When it comes to controlling domestic tobacco consumption, Japan lags far behind North America and Europe. Advertising of tobacco products has increased since imports were liberalized, and can now been seen in every railroad car; nonsmoking is designated in less than 1 percent of taxicabs; only half of private corporations and restaurants have banned smoking or instituted smoking and nonsmoking areas; and the price of a pack of cigarettes in Japan is the lowest among the Group of Seven nations, at about a quarter of the price in New York.

But the most serious problem in Japan is related to cigarette vending machines, which are the biggest obstacle to discouraging minors from smoking. There are about 620,000 vending machines in this country today — nearly three times as many as there were a quarter of a century ago when antismoking campaigns started.

Japan’s lukewarm attitude toward controlling smoking can be traced to the government’s administrative structure for tobacco products. In stark contrast with other advanced countries where serious efforts to restrict smoking are being made under the leadership of their welfare, labor and education ministries, Japanese law governing the tobacco industry gives the Finance Ministry the authority to decide and approve the pricing, advertising, and warnings of tobacco products as well as to set the standards for installing cigarette vending machines.

To make matters even worse, the Finance Ministry holds nearly a 70-percent stake in Japan Tobacco Inc. And top Finance Ministry officials upon retirement assume important positions in JT, including its presidency. In short, the interests of the supervisors and those being supervised are identical. Because of the Finance Ministry’s jurisdiction in tobacco-related matters, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare can do little to restrict smoking for health reasons. In fact, it has neither a department nor experts dealing with tobacco products.

Between last October and December, the Welfare Ministry and the Finance Ministry came up with separate, diametrically opposed policies regarding the FCTC.

The Welfare Ministry stated that the targets and basic directions of the FCTC are appropriate and that consumption of tobacco products must be reduced to promote health. The Finance Ministry, on the other hand, asserted that the government should merely provide information that enables individuals to decide for themselves whether or not to smoke, and that no measures should be taken to reduce consumption of tobacco products or to ban them.

Since the Finance Ministry’s authority to draft the government’s budget gives it the upper hand, its position is usually reflected in the government’s policies. In the previous round of negotiations on the FCTC, Japan was the only one among the 192 participating nations to express reservations on the purpose of the treaty to reduce global consumption of tobacco products. In the final round that ended March 1, however, Japan found it no longer possible to resist international public opinion.

Once the FCTC takes effect and global controls on smoking gain momentum, the Japanese government will no longer be able to remain idle. With that in mind, it is essential to amend the law governing the tobacco industry, and transfer from the Finance Ministry to the Welfare Ministry the authority to regulate warnings, advertising and other matters related to tobacco products. The Welfare Ministry must then act urgently and set up a special section to carry out its new responsibilities.

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