Reality check, 2010: ‘Smoking doesn’t cause cancer’ (Japan Tobacco)


Every generation has its theme song.

I was contemplating this quaint truism when trying to pinpoint a tune that would neatly sum up the mores of the men and women who grew to adulthood in Japan between 1960 and 1985, the era of rapid and spectacular economic expansion.

Was it 1961’s jolly “Sukiyaki Song,” with its uplifting lyric, “Let’s walk with our eyes to the sky?” Or, conversely, could it be the sorrowful lament of Hibari Misora’s 1966 hit, “Kanashii Sake” (“Sad Sake”): “Drinking all alone in a bar / I can taste the tears of parting?”

Actually, it was “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” the 1933 American hit by Jerome Kern and Otto Harbach, that came to mind under the clear skies of Golden Week.

And not only in your eyes, but also in your nose, mouth and all over your clothing. This association of Japan with smoking rose up like a toxic cloud before my eyes thanks to something that happened this month far away from Japan, in Australia.

But first, why “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”?

I am often asked about my first impression upon arriving in Japan in 1967. It is, hands down, cigarette smoke wherever you went. Mind you, the developed countries of the West could not take much of a healthier-than-thou attitude on that, since the consciousness there regarding the dangers to public health posed by tobacco was only in its formative stage at the time. I had spent the earlier part of 1967 in France, a country whose intellectuals identified much more profoundly with their Gauloises cigarettes than they did with de Gaulle, their leader.

Just look at the smoking rates for Japan, a place with no restrictions on where people could puff away. For Japanese males: 1965, 82 percent; 1976, 75 percent; 1980, 70 percent; 1985, 65 percent. The corresponding percentages for the United States, where, from the mid-’60s, the anti-smoking campaign began to take hold: 52, 41, 37, 33.

People in Japan generally lit up without asking those around if it might bother them. In addition, I cannot recall a single public place — be it a restaurant, business office or university common room — where it was possible to escape the effects of passive smoking. In the good old days, we were all smokers.

The anti-smoking campaign here started to pick up steam, if you will, in the 1980s. Japan Tobacco was, until 1985, a state-owned and state-controlled monopoly, with profits flowing into government coffers. When the tide finally started to turn in Japan, as well, in favor of restrictions — such as warnings on cigarette packets — the government opted for the ultra-mild: “For our health, let’s try not to smoke too much.”

The tobacco industry, newly privatized (in 1985), sought to smarten their game and polish their image with some catchy slogans. Two that spring to mind sound as ludicrous to our ear today as they did then. “Always Keep an Ashtray in Your Heart” . . . or, my absolute favorite, a classic of the adman’s art . . . “The Ashtray is Sunday for Your Heart.”

As for me, working in Tokyo during the heady 1980s, passive smoke affected not only my lungs but my wallet as well. Whenever I got home, my wife would make me strip and leave my clothes, reeking of smoke, at the door. Not only was this tricky when there were guests in the living room, but it also added tens of thousands of yen to the dry-cleaning bill.

So why Australia all of a sudden?

Well, two weeks ago, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced an increase of between A$2 and A$3 in the price of a standard pack of 25 cigarettes — effective immediately — so taking the cost up to approximately A$15 (about ¥1,200), which is more than three times the cost in Japan. Estimates are that this price hike will cut the smoking rate by 2 to 3 percent, and will generate an extra A$5 billion in government revenue — all of which is earmarked to fund health and hospital initiatives.

But an even more startling announcement by Mr. Rudd inaugurates a world’s-first policy.

From Jan. 1, 2012, all brands will be sold in plain brown boxes with photos of cigarette damage to health and bold-face warnings on the front. Brand names will appear colorless in an identical font style and size at the bottom. This policy sounds the death knell for the stylish identifications made by advertisers — that Marlboro men are all John Waynes in disguise and Virginia Slims girls are snakelike Kate Mosses just waiting to shed. The government wants to cut the smoking rate — now 26.5 percent for men and 20 percent for women — to an overall 10 percent by 2018.

As for Japan Tobacco Inc., now known as JT for short, the company accounts for two-thirds of all cigarettes sold in Japan, contributing the equivalent of more than $3 billion to the government, which still owns a controlling share in the company. And although the smoking rate among Japanese males has now dropped to 43 percent, it still represents a huge number of addicted consumers.

JT’s ad mavens are older and shrewder. Their advertising is greener than green, both in color and conceptual design. They are now emphasizing the manners surrounding smoking, both personal and public. This has two effects. It encourages smokers to be mindful of the comfort and rights of non-smokers. But more crucial for the tobacco industry, it gives smokers the impression that they have a choice of whether to smoke or not, thereby refuting the fact that tobacco is a highly addictive drug that, according to the United Nation’s health agency, the World Health Organization, will account for 50 percent of the deaths of young people who take up the habit now.

JT’s self-stated mission purports to emphasize “the diversity of societies and individuals.” This is code for creating ads that target small groups of people, categorized by gender, age, ethnic bonds, etc. It is an advertising campaign that covers the wolf of profit in the soft fleece of consideration.

Certainly, public habits are changing in this country, with more and more locations becoming smoke free. But such regulations are not the biggest threat to the tobacco industry. That would come from a simple price rise. Surveys show that approximately half of Japanese smokers say they would try to quit if the price of a pack went to ¥500 or more.

JT is feeling the pinch of progress. Even though protected by their masters in government, they are on the defensive.

“Our customers are beginning to feel marginalized,” says Toshimasa Kurita, head of the Environment Creation Division of JT.

But Kurita has also claimed — and I think it appropriate to give him the final word on the tenets of morality, and the statistics of mortality, linked to tobacco — “We don’t believe smoking causes cancer.”