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Wednesday, May 3, 2006

REALITY CHECK

The Diet -- smokers' last stand, for now


Staff writer

The Diet, the bastion of political power where ruling and opposition party lawmakers duel verbally with impunity and immunity, is a smokers' haven.

News photo
Couches outside the House of Representatives plenary chamber all have an ashtray within easy reach.

Just outside the House of Representatives plenary chamber, plush couches each have their standing ashtrays.

A Lower House member who smokes about 30 cigarettes a day said there is no inconvenience for smokers inside the Diet building.

"If the plenary session goes on for a couple of hours, I can just step outside for a cigarette," said the lawmaker in his late 30s who asked that his name not be used.

According to the Lower House Steering Committee, the only official rule regarding smoking is that it is not permitted in plenary or official committee sessions. In the House of Councilors, it is banned at plenary sessions, while the executive boards of each committee decides whether their sessions should be nonsmoking.

But some Diet members have had enough of secondhand smoke.

In July 2002, Democratic Party of Japan member Yoko Komiyama, along with fellow lawmakers, formed a nonpartisan group seeking a no-smoking environment at the Diet. The group currently has 77 Diet members across the political spectrum.

"At that time, both the domestic and international trend was against smoking," Komiyama said. "Only inside the Diet, smokers could freely light up. I thought it was ludicrous."

The group's activities include proposing various no-smoking measures to government ministries and agencies and demanding a rise in the tobacco tax -- not to mention securing a nonsmoking environment in the Diet.

Not all members are non- or ex-smokers, Komiyama said, noting some puff occasionally.

Komiyama said the group is trying to promote responsible smoking that doesn't "cause trouble for others."

"We are trying to get people to recognize the harm that tobacco causes, based on scientific fact. And when they truly understand that, they should know how to behave of their own accord."

A law outlining health promotion measures took effect in May 2003 that stipulated "efforts be made to take necessary measures to prevent passive smoking" in public places, including schools, hospitals, restaurants and government offices.

In June 2004, Japan ratified the World Health Organization's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which calls for the adoption and implementation of legislation and administrative measures to provide "protection from exposure to tobacco smoke in indoor workplaces, public transport, indoor public places and, as appropriate, other public places."

With this, various government ministries have taken steps to curb smoking. The Justice Ministry permits smoking only in a designated room in the basement and a space outside on the grounds. The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry completely banned smoking on its premises in April.

The Diet has lagged behind.

The 30-cigarette-a-day Lower House member said he hopes the Diet will not ban smoking altogether, but at the same time he pointed to the lack of rules regarding smoking.

"Considering the recent trend, I am actually surprised the Diet does not have firmer rules," he admitted. "Compared with companies, or even ministries and agencies, smoking rules at the Diet are too lax."

For the general public and Diet employees, both chambers provide smoking areas. But the steering committees of both houses acknowledge there are no other specific rules regarding smoking in other rooms.

"There needs to be a standard rule regarding smoking in the Upper and Lower houses," said veteran lawmaker Tamisuke Watanuki, leader of People's New Party.

"But in the end, smoking is about self-control," Watanuki, an ex-smoker himself, added. "It is not something that should be forced on someone. People need to become aware of the need" to quit smoking.

Watanuki, a former Lower House speaker, recalled that even when he started his political career 37 years ago, when he was smoking five packs a day, the plenary session was nonsmoking, "because it is a sacred place."

But Watanuki, who chairs the antismoking group, said there has been some improvement over the past decade, including the installation of machines that suck up tobacco smoke.

One of the biggest hurdles, he pointed out, is the contradiction between the interests of government ministries.

"While the health ministry, going along with the global trend, continues to promote antismoking efforts, the Finance Ministry tries to sell cigarettes to increase tax revenues."

The tobacco industry was a government monopoly until 1985, when it was privatized. The Finance Ministry, however, continues to be Japan Tobacco's largest shareholder, with a 50.03 percent stake.

"There is no other country where the Finance Ministry controls" the tobacco industry, said Bungaku Watanabe, director of the nongovernmental Tobacco Problems Information Center. "Until about three years ago, the South Korean government owned about 25 percent of (tobacco industry) stocks, but let it all go. And now the government can promote no-smoking without restraint."

Watanabe pointed out, for example, that in the United States, Britain, Sweden, Australia, Thailand and Hong Kong, the government and medical organizations are taking the lead and working together to curb smoking.

He sees the issue of smoking in the Diet as a reflection of the history of cozy ties between politicians and the tobacco farmers and retailers -- a relationship he argues continues to this day.

DPJ lawmaker Komiyama admitted that membership in the nonpartisan group to promote no-smoking tends to decline before an election.

But that will not stop Watanabe from pursuing a no-smoking environment in the Diet.

"Immediate measures against smoking must be taken at the Diet," he said. "It is absurd to think that lawmakers are deliberating bills while smoking."



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