The government’s plan to tighten rules against indoor smoking in public spaces is under attack from ruling Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers as well as associations of restaurants and bars, who complain that the proposed new regulations will push small establishments out of business. While the steps are being explored now as Tokyo prepares to host the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, opponents should realize that passive smoking is a real health hazard — and that Japan’s efforts to address the problem are long overdue.

Out of some 6 million tobacco-induced deaths worldwide every year, 600,000 will be a result of secondhand smoke, according to the World Health Organization. Last year, the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry estimated that 15,000 people die in Japan every year from illnesses caused by passive smoking, ranging from lung cancer to heart attacks and strokes. While the smoking rate fell to a record low 18.2 percent in 2015, government surveys show that 30 to 40 percent of nonsmokers experience passive smoking in such places as restaurants, bars, workplaces and game parlors.

A WHO framework convention on tobacco regulations, which Japan ratified in 2004, calls on countries to take effective steps to protect people from passive exposure to smoking in public spaces used by large numbers of people, and 49 nations have enacted laws to ban smoking in public spaces such as medical institutions, schools and restaurants. However, Japan only calls for efforts to prevent passive smoking in such places in a law aimed at promoting people’s health, and it carries no penalties for failures to act.

The government’s move to tighten indoor smoking rules before the 2020 Games has been prompted by the agreement by the WHO and the International Olympic Committee to aim for tobacco-free Olympics. Host countries of recent Olympics have been taking legal steps to curb passive smoking.

The health ministry’s current plan — on which the government hopes to submit a relevant bill during the current Diet session — has already been watered down from its own position on the issue. Last summer, the ministry’s report on the hazards of smoking, updated for the first time in 15 years, emphasized the risk of passive smoking. Noting that Japan’s effort against passive smoking is rated at the worst level by the WHO, the report called for a total ban on indoor smoking in public spaces, saying that smoke can leak from segregated smoking areas and workers who serve guests or clean up such areas are exposed to secondhand smoke.

But a draft of the measures against passive smoking compiled by the health ministry last October, while calling for a total smoking ban on the premises of schools and medical institutions and prohibiting indoor smoking in government buildings, would ban smoking in eateries, bars and offices “in principle” but allow them to set up smoking areas.

That draft met with strong opposition from the restaurant and bar industries, which argued that a uniform requirement for creation of segregated smoking areas would harm the sales at small establishments that cannot afford to set up such areas and possibly push them out of business. In response, the health ministry is reportedly weighing revising the plan to allow smoking at small bars — less than 30 sq. meters in floor space — where minors are not assumed to visit. It is also said to be considering widening the exception to Japanese-style pubs and other shops that serve both alcohol and food — even though minors may dine with their parents. Places with a broad range of customers — such as ramen shops, sushi bars and standard restaurants — will be smoke-free but can set up smoking areas.

Creating these exceptions will only undermine the purpose of the measures to stop passive smoking in public spaces. But opposition is emerging even to this watered-down plan from some lawmakers. During a meeting earlier this month of the LDP group on health and labor issues, several members reportedly lashed out against the ministry’s revised plan, saying Japan should pursue segregated smoking instead of a smoking ban — or that tobacco is a legally approved luxury and punishing people for smoking infringes on people’s freedom. Concerns were voiced about the impact on government revenue from the tobacco tax — and on the votes from related industries — from tighter rules on indoor smoking.

There are reports that more than 100 LDP lawmakers receive political donations from the tobacco industry. It’s not known whether the lawmakers oppose the health ministry’s plans in deference to the interest of the tobacco business or related industries. What they need to prioritize, however, is the effort to protect people’s health from passive smoking. And the health ministry should think again whether its plan will serve its intended purpose of minimizing the risk of secondhand smoke.

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