An ordinance adopted last week by the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly imposes broader restrictions on smoking in restaurants and bars than a similar national-level measure currently being weighed in the Diet to curb passive smoking. The amendment to the Health Promotion Law that is now before the Upper House, delayed by a year due to strong resistance from the tobacco lobby within the Liberal Democratic Party and significantly watered down from the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry’s original plan, will exclude a majority of restaurants and drinking establishments from the proposal that in principle would ban indoor smoking in public spaces. The Tokyo ordinance, on the other hand, covers more than 80 percent of the capital’s eateries and bars.
Both measures will be in place by the time Tokyo hosts the 2020 Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games. Japan, whose regulations against secondhand smoking have been given the worst rating by the World Health Organization, is taking the steps in order to match the joint goal set by the WHO and the International Olympic Committee to stage a “tobacco-free Olympics.” But irrespective of the upcoming sports extravaganza, passive smoking is a public health hazard estimated to claim roughly 15,000 lives every year. Efforts need to be made to constantly review and update the regulations so they will effectively curb health damage caused by secondhand tobacco smoke.
Smoking is blamed for the death of more than 7 million people annually around the world, including non-smokers exposed to passive smoke. A 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 55 countries prohibit smoking in such places, Japan is not one of them.
The plan originally drafted by the health ministry more than a year ago called for a total ban on indoor smoking in schools, hospitals and government institutions, while allowing operators of restaurants and bars, offices and hotels to create segregated smoking rooms. It left bars no more than 30 square meters in size exempt, in view of complaints from the bar industry that small establishments can’t afford to build smoking rooms. But the legislation prepared for the Diet last year was shot down by the LDP’s tobacco lobby with help from restaurant and bar operators.
Compromise legislation submitted this year — and already approved by the Lower House and likely to clear the Upper House during the current Diet session — widened the exemption to existing restaurants and bars with floor space of up to 100 square meters and are either run by individual owners or capitalized at up to ¥50 million, as long as they put up a sign out front announcing that smoking is allowed within. Newly established diners and bars, as well as those that are frequented by minors, will be required to have segregated smoking rooms. The problem is that with these loopholes, only 45 percent of eating and drinking establishments nationwide will have to comply with the regulation and take active steps, throwing its effectiveness in curbing health damage from passive smoking into doubt.
The ordinance adopted by the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly, meanwhile, stipulates that smoking will be prohibited in restaurants and bars that have employed staff irrespective of their floor space — a criteria meant to protect workers from the risk of secondhand smoke — though the businesses will be allowed to create segregated smoking rooms. Establishments that do not have hired staff will be able to choose whether to go smoking or non-smoking. Violations will draw a fine as high as ¥50,000. That rule will cover about 84 percent of the bars and dining establishments in the capital. The ordinance also imposes tighter rules on outdoor smoking, banning the creation of outdoor smoking spaces on the premises of facilities for children, such as kindergartens, day care centers and schools.
It is significant that a local government has introduced regulations stronger than the national legislation on an issue that concerns public health. Similar ordinances are reportedly being considered by some other governments, including in the city of Chiba. Given that the national legislation is deemed to lack the teeth necessary to combat passive smoking, more prefectures and municipalities should consider following in Tokyo’s footsteps.
The LDP opposed the Tokyo ordinance during the vote in the metropolitan assembly, reportedly arguing that the criteria for exemption from the indoor smoking ban — whether the establishment has employed staff — will be hard to follow among small eateries and bars, and therefore leaving the effectiveness of the rule in doubt. It in fact will be a challenge for authorities — checking each of the roughly 130,000 establishments in the capital that are believed to have hired staff — to make sure that the ordinance effectively curbs passive smoking.
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