Smoking ban plan diluted again

It’s doubtful that the health ministry’s latest plan to protect people from the hazards of secondhand smoke will have its intended effect. The plan — which will form the basis of a bill the government intends to propose as early as March — takes a big step back from the ministry’s original initiative to ban indoor smoking in all public spaces.

The apparent concession to the tobacco lobby within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party is likely intended to get the measure implemented in time for the 2020 Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo. But the ministry should reconsider whether the planned steps will indeed have any meaningful impact against secondhand smoking, which is estimated to cause 15,000 deaths each year.

A 2005 World Health Organization framework convention on tobacco regulations, in which some 180 nations, including Japan, took part, calls for prohibiting indoor smoking in public spaces such as hospitals, schools, government buildings, workplaces, restaurants and bars, and public transportation. As of last year, 55 countries had introduced a total ban on indoor smoking in such places, but Japan has so far lacked any such regulation.

According to the plan released in late January by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, smoking will be prohibited on the premises of hospitals, schools, universities and government institutions, and operators of such facilities will not be allowed to create smoking rooms. But the proposed regulation on smoking in restaurants and bars — where, according to a government survey, 40 percent of nonsmokers inhale secondhand smoke — is riddled with loopholes.

While smoking is to be prohibited in restaurants and bars, proprietors of such establishments will be able to set up smoking rooms in which customers will not be allowed to eat or drink. And existing small-scale restaurants and bars will be excluded from the ban. The ministry’s plan does not specify a definition for “small-scale” establishments.

While the ministry’s earlier plan said establishments with floor space of up to 30 square meters will be exempt from the ban, it is now said to be in talks with the LDP for setting the criteria at 150 square meters — which, according to a Tokyo Metropolitan Government survey, would leave more than 90 percent of restaurants and bars in the capital exempt from the ban.

Those small eateries and bars will be able to allow their customers to smoke as long as they put up signs indicating that lighting up is permitted. Minors will be banned from entering spaces where there is a risk of inhaling secondhand smoke. Restaurants and bars run by large-scale chain operators, such as family restaurants, and establishments that open after the new measures take effect will not be covered by the exception, irrespective of their size.

The health ministry has been seeking to introduce binding rules against indoor smoking in public spaces ahead of the Tokyo Olympics — in line with an agreement between the WHO and the International Olympic Committee to stage “tobacco-free” games. Host countries of recent Olympics, including Britain, Canada, Russia and Brazil, have banned indoor smoking in public spaces. But the ministry’s plan has been diluted from its original proposal in the face of stiff opposition from within the LDP, whose tobacco-friendly lawmakers backed by the restaurant and bar industries protested that the planned measure infringes on people’s “right to smoke.” Even the watered-down version that would exempt establishments up to 30 square meters in floor space, which the government tried to propose to the Diet last year, was shot down by the opponents within the LDP.

What’s unfortunate is that the health hazard from passive smoking did not appear to have been prioritized in the discussion over the smoking regulation.

According to a health ministry estimate, smoking was blamed for illnesses such as cancer, strokes and heart attacks affecting more than 1 million people in Japan in fiscal 2014, including 240,000 people exposed to secondhand tobacco smoke. Medical expenses on tobacco-induced illnesses reached ¥1.49 trillion, accounting for 3.7 percent of the nation’s total medical bills. Illnesses linked to passive smoking alone cost ¥320 billion in medical expenses that year. It should be noted that the WHO convention on tobacco regulations does not recognize the creation of smoking rooms — which will be allowed in restaurants and bars of any size under the ministry’s plan — as an effective step against secondhand smoking.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government led by Gov. Yuriko Koike, which had intended to propose tighter smoking regulations for the capital than the ministry’s plan, said it would postpone introduction of the ordinance so as to remain consistent with the national government’s initiative and avoid confusion. Let’s hope that momentum for curbing passive smoking is not slipping away.