Measures to fight passive smoking diluted again

Media reports that the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry is weighing significantly easing the conditions for allowing smoking in restaurants and bars in its planned measure to curb indoor smoking bode ill for efforts to combat health damage from secondhand smoke. An apparent compromise with the tobacco lobby within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, the reported plan marks a substantial setback from the ministry’s original plan for prohibiting indoor smoking in public spaces — an area in which Japan is deemed to lag far behind many other countries. The ministry should reconsider whether the measure serves its intended purpose of promoting public health.

The government is seeking to revise the law on public health to incorporate measures to prevent passive smoking — in time for Tokyo to host the 2020 Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games under a “tobacco-free” environment per the request from the World Health Organization. However, the health ministry proposal to ban indoor smoking in public spaces met with strong objections from the LDP’s pro-tobacco lawmakers, and the government gave up submitting relevant legislation featuring even watered-down measures during this year’s regular Diet session.

Under the ministry’s plan, smoking will be prohibited within the premises of medical institutions and elementary, junior high and high schools. Upon protests from the LDP tobacco lobby, the ministry had to water down its original idea of banning smoking inside restaurants and bars — but still allowing such establishments to create segregated smoking areas — by making small establishments with floor space of up to 30 sq. meters exempt from the rule. But even that plan was rejected by the LDP lawmakers, who insisted that people should be ensured of “the right to smoke” and that segregated smoking areas would be enough to address the problem of passive smoking.

In the reshuffle of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet in August, Yasuhisa Shiozaki, who as health minister pushed for the ministry’s plan in the face of opposition from the LDP, was replaced by the current chief Katsunobu Kato. And a new plan reportedly weighed by the health ministry, and being adjusted with the LDP, would enable proprietors of restaurants and bars with floor space up to 150 sq. meters to allow their customers to smoke as an exception to a smoking ban in such establishments. That exception, however, will not be applied to newly opened establishments and those run by major restaurant/bar chains, but will be reserved as a temporary measure in view of the possible impact on the business of existing restaurants and bars. The plan does not specify, however, when the temporary measure will be lifted or reviewed. As in the original plan, larger establishments will be able to create separate smoking areas.

The problem is that most restaurants and bars in Tokyo could fall under this exception. A 2015 survey by the metropolitan government showed that more than 70 percent of such establishments in the capital had a floor space of 100 sq. meters or less. Most family restaurants, however, will in principle be smoke-free — or feature smoking areas — since they are run by big chain operators.

Time is running short for the government to introduce the anti-smoking measures in time for the 2020 Games, in view of the time needed for notifying the public of the new rules and to build separate smoking areas. Still, the health ministry’s reported compromise plan appears to leave open too big a loophole for the measure to have much effect.

A WHO framework convention on tobacco regulations of 2005, 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 nearly 50 countries today prohibit smoking in all such places, Japan has no such regulations. In the face of lagging government efforts, Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike plans to soon submit a local ordinance featuring tighter measures that will ban smoking in indoor spaces used by large numbers of people, though it will still allow the creation of separate smoking areas.

The WHO says segregated smoking is not a solution for stopping passive smoking, which the health ministry estimates is behind the deaths of around 15,000 people each year. Last month, the government gave up incorporating a target to eliminate passive smoking in its new program to fight cancer in the face of opposition from within the LDP. All the parties involved in the discussion of smoking regulations should think about what they should place priority on in the planned measures.