The government made a regrettable decision when it deferred proposing tighter measures to prevent passive smoking in the face of stiff opposition from the tobacco lobby within the Liberal Democratic Party. The LDP lawmakers who shot down the proposed regulations to prohibit indoor smoking in public spaces should face up to the health problems posed by secondhand smoke and drop their opposition.

In ramming the contentious conspiracy bill — which penalizes conspiring and preparing for a crime before the act is committed — through the last Diet session, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stressed that the legislation was needed for Japan to join a United Nations convention on cross-border crimes and to beef up anti-terrorism measures in time for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. But Abe does not appear interested in building a consensus within his own party on measures against passive smoking that would bring Japan more in tune with a World Health Organization convention and in line with the WHO-International Olympic Committee agreement to hold “tobacco-free” games. It would be a pity if his administration will continue to put this issue concerning public health on the political back burner.

The 2005 WHO framework convention on tobacco regulations, in which some 180 countries including Japan have taken part, calls for banning indoor smoking in public spaces such as hospitals, schools, government institutions, workplaces, restaurants and bars, and public transportation. While 49 countries now prohibit smoking in all such places, Japan has no such regulations. The law on promoting public health requires administrators of facilities where large numbers of people gather, like medical institutions, government offices and restaurants, to make efforts to prevent secondhand smoke, but it carries no penalty for failing to comply. Japan’s smoking regulations have the lowest grade by the WHO.

The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry’s proposal to tighten rules against passive smoking would still have been short of WHO standards in that it would have allowed proprietors of restaurants and bars to create smoking rooms. In response to an outcry over its original draft from industry groups representing restaurants and drinking establishments, as well as LDP lawmakers backed by these industries, the ministry also made small bars with floor space of 30 sq. meters or less exempt from the requirement.

That did not stop the LDP’s tobacco lobby from rejecting the health ministry proposal. The lawmakers came up with a counterproposal that would let operators of restaurants and bars with floor space of up to 150 sq. meters allow their customers to smoke as long as they put up signs on their storefronts indicating that smoking is permitted in their establishments either in general or in segregated sections.

The lawmakers insist that health damage from secondhand tobacco smoke can be prevented through segregated smoking, although the WHO says the creation of smoking rooms does not stop passive smoking. The health ministry’s compromise plan to allow smoking in restaurants and bars along the LDP’s version for a grace period of several years before the tighter rules came into effect also was not acceptable to the tobacco backers, and the government gave up submitting the proposed legislation during the Diet session that ended last month.

The government says it will try to get the indoor smoking regulation enacted in the session this fall. Given that the rules need to be notified sufficiently in advance, time is running short to have effective steps in place to stage a “tobacco-free” Olympics. The LDP should reconsider its opposition to the health ministry plan.

Japan’s lukewarm measures against health problems posed by smoking are often linked to the government’s involvement in the tobacco business. More than 30 years after the tobacco monopoly was privatized in 1985, the government holds a 33.35 percent stake in Japan Tobacco Inc. Dividends from these Japan Tobacco shares contribute more than ¥70 billion to state coffers every year. The Finance Ministry holds the power to authorize tobacco retail prices — more than 60 percent of which goes to the tobacco tax, bringing in roughly ¥2 trillion in annual tax revenue. The government should not place its financial interest in tobacco sales ahead of its duty to protect the public health.

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