Antitobacco Campaigners Seize Olympic Opportunity for Clearing Smoke in Japan’s Public Places


With a powerful protobacco lobby, Japan’s smoke-free policies lag behind those of its international peers. The lead-up to the 2020 Olympic and Paralympics Games in Tokyo, however, offers an excellent opportunity for campaigners to introduce effective legislation that can protect nonsmokers against the dangers of passive smoking.

In July 2017, the World Health Organization published a report on the global tobacco epidemic and the progress of WHO member states, including Japan, in their efforts to combat it. Japan is a signatory—along with 167 other countries—to the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. Yet its tobacco policy lags a long way behind the FCTC’s standards. Japan is currently ranked at the lowest level in the world for its smoke-free policy.

As a journalist from Britain, where strict bans on smoking in public spaces were finally fully introduced 10 years ago, I am still shocked to see people light up in Japan’s bars, restaurants, and workplaces, bringing back bad memories of the dense fogs, the smell of tobacco smoke in hair and clothes, and ashtrays piled with cigarette butts. Public smoking is still allowed indoors in Japan in spite of the fact that less than 20% of the population smokes and evidence of the dangers of passive smoking is overwhelming. Afghanistan, Yemen, and Pakistan are all ranked ahead of Japan in terms of smoke-free policies.

Deadline 2020?

There is, however, a glimmer of hope ahead in the form of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games. This high-profile event has been seized upon by antitobacco campaigners as a catalyst for improving Japan’s tobacco policy. The hope is that it will provide a deadline for Japan to introduce proper legislation against passive smoking and help it vault from its current status into the ranks of nations with modern attitudes to smoking.

The International Olympic Committee has urged Japan to implement strict legal restrictions on smoking in public places, as other recent Olympic host nations have done. In Tokyo, the debate has begun, but progress has been slow. “There’s a large and very powerful protobacco lobby in the Diet, mostly within my own party,” says Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Mihara Junko. “The LDP has historically protected the interests of tobacco growers, manufacturers, and sellers, as well as bar and restaurant owners, all of whom have vested interests in watering down proposed legislation or preventing it altogether. But the fact is that approximately 15,000 people die every year from passive smoking. In the end, the health of the individual is what should matter.”

In early 2017, the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare submitted a piece of draft legislation designed to ban indoor smoking in public places, including workplaces, bars, and restaurants. In spite of evidence suggesting that smoking legislation is only effective when implemented as a strict, total control policy, the MHLW’s proposal excluded from the ban bars with a floor area of less than 30 square meters. The protobacco lobby mobilized powerful opposition and pushed for the threshold to be increased to 100 square meters. Under this latter proposal, only 5% of bars and 14% of restaurants would have been required to become smoke free. Eventually the draft legislation was dropped.

A new draft is being prepared for submission to the Diet in early 2018. “The principle is the same as last time, namely, to ban smoking in indoor public places,” says a senior MHLW bureaucrat. “We’re aware that the prosmoking opposition is still there. They’d like a much looser system whereby the bar or restaurant owner can decide freely whether to completely ban smoking indoors, display smoking and nonsmoking signs, or provide separate areas for smokers and nonsmokers. This isn’t good enough. We’re rethinking the details and we’re hopeful that we’ll prevail this time. The problem is that the power of the protobacco lobby far outweighs, in proportional terms, the smoking population. There are a disproportionate number of smokers among LDP Diet members, particularly older members. We have a lot of work to do to inform the public about the dangers of passive smoking. We need more public conferences, symposia, and collaborations with medical experts, as well as much more coverage in the media.”

Manners over Legislation

How has the tobacco industry ended up dominating the debate and holding so much power over the tobacco agenda? The answer lies in the fact that the Ministry of Finance owns 33% of the shares of Japan Tobacco, the third largest tobacco company in the world, and dominates most aspects of Japan’s tobacco policy. It purchases all domestically grown tobacco at a price well above the international going rate. This placates the farmers and keeps the LDP happy because the value of a rural vote in Japan is worth several times that of an urban vote. It oversees the licensing of vending machines and over-the-counter sales of tobacco. It sets tobacco tax rates, retail prices of cigarettes, and restrictions imposed on advertising and cigarette packet labelling, as well as almost every other aspect of tobacco policy.

Working against the antitobacco lobby, there is also an informality in Japanese smoking policy that has allowed the emphasis to be placed on “smoking manners” rather than on nonsmokers’ rights. Tobacco companies have deftly created “manners campaigns” to encourage smokers to be considerate of nonsmokers. This spreads a subliminal message of compassion, but it is clear that because bad manners are not subject to fines, good manners are merely optional.

“The Japanese government ignores the WHO’s standards, even though Japan is an FCTC signatory,” says Sakuta Manabu, chairman of the Japan Society for Tobacco Control. “Cigarette packet health warnings don’t meet FCTC standards, and there are still no picture-based health warnings, although we’ve been campaigning for this for a long time. JT still places advertisements in the media, and this means that the media is reluctant to criticize the industry and speak out against tobacco policy. There is also unnecessary interaction between the industry and the LDP. Contributions to political campaigns by the tobacco industry are neither prohibited nor transparent. The current health minister, Katō Katsunobu, is a member of the protobacco lobby in the LDP; and the finance minister, Asō Tarō, has even questioned the evidence showing the harmful effects of smoking on health.”

There appears to be an extraordinary level of denial among the protobacco factions, but this is only serving to promote the cause of the antitobacco campaigners who are raising their game and beginning to hit their stride. “We have to push for massively more public awareness,” says LDP lawmaker Mihara. “We have to make a lot of noise. We are signing up celebrities, athletes, and others to our cause. There are websites. We’re collecting signatures. The voice of the silent majority needs to be heard, much more powerfully.”

Tokyo Governor Koike Yuriko has latched on to the movement too. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government is planning to issue an ordinance in 2018 banning smoking in indoor public places, with fines for breaching the rules. “This antismoking movement is gaining popularity,” says Sakuta. “A large majority of the population does not smoke and does not want to suffer from passive smoking. The public mood is building against tobacco and politically this will eventually have an impact. We’re waiting for Prime Minister Abe Shinzō to test the mood and discover that he should support antitobacco legislation in time for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.”

Tobacco is far from dead in Japan, but the challengers are in place and arming themselves for the fight.

(Originally written in English. Banner photo: A man smoking at a restaurant in Tokyo. © Jiji.)

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