The amended law on promoting public health, which tightened rules on passive smoking, partially took effect at the beginning of July, making it mandatory that smoking will be banned “in principle” at public facilities accessed by vulnerable people such as minors, those who are ill and pregnant women. As a result, indoor smoking has been totally banned in such facilities as school buildings, hospitals and government offices. However, partitioned outdoor smoking areas continue to be allowed as an “exception.”

The implemented measures are a first big step in the effort to stamp out passive smoking, in that penalties will be imposed on malicious offenders, but much more can and should be done. While most hospitals and operators of schools from elementary to high school have made their premises smoke-free, many government institutions and universities still have designated outdoor smoking areas.

The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, in charge of tightening rules on smoking, has told other government bodies they are “not advised” to keep their outdoor smoking corners. But according to reports, only two ministries and 10 prefectural governments have so far complied, with the rest either keeping or opening outdoor smoking areas. Universities that have instituted a total campus ban on smoking remain a minority, with most others continuing to let people light up in outdoor spaces.

Government institutions and universities maintaining outdoor smoking areas are reportedly concerned that if they go entirely smoke-free, smokers will just head out to the surrounding neighborhood and toss their cigarette butts on the street — and have actually received complaints from residents. The parties concerned should find new solutions, since the purpose of the amended law is to make such facilities totally smoke-free.

Exceptions to rules often turn into loopholes that render the rules almost ineffective. When the amended law on public health promotion is fully implemented next April, indoor smoking will in principle be banned in restaurants and bars, offices, hotel lobbies, entertainment facilities and public transportation such as ships and railways, but the operators can still allow their customers to light up in rooms that prevent smoke from leaking out. The problem is that proprietors of small restaurants and bars with guest floor space of 100 square meters or less will be allowed for the time being to let their customers smoke without creating special rooms.

An initial draft of the rules against passive smoking penned by the health ministry allowed this exemption for much smaller restaurants and bars. That was until the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s tobacco lobby flexed its muscles. In the end, establishments that will be exempt from the indoor smoking ban will account for 55 percent of the total, according to a health ministry estimate. Given that nonsmokers are believed to be most susceptible to passive smoke when they use restaurants and bars, questions have been raised whether the amended law will effectively guard people from the potential health damage of secondhand smoke.

Japan has long been criticized for its lax rules on passive smoke. One factor behind the move to tighten the rules was the call from the International Olympic Committee for a “tobacco-free Olympics” as Japan hosts the 2020 Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo. As host of the games, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government introduced its own regulations on smoking that are tighter than the amended public health promotion law. As of this month, smoking is totally banned on the premises of the metropolitan government, while all competition venues during the 2020 games will be entirely smoke-free, including electronic cigarettes.

But the purpose of tightening the rules on smoking in public spaces is to prevent health damage from secondhand smoke. According to the World Health Organization, at least 8 million people worldwide die every year from health effects related to smoking, including 1 million from secondhand smoke. Victims of secondhand smoke include more than 60,000 children younger than 5 who die of respiratory infection. Under the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which Japan signed in 2004, the WHO recommends that smoking be banned in all indoor public spaces in order to stop passive smoking. As of 2017, 55 countries in the world have reportedly introduced a total smoking ban for indoor public spaces. The government needs to constantly review whether its measures against passive smoking are sufficient to protect people from the health damage of secondhand tobacco smoke.

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