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Friday, June 2, 2006

Aussie on antismoking 'pilgrimage'

Staff writer

Clad all in white with a straw hat and armed with a banner proclaiming: "Not smoking is love," Mark Gibbens is on a mission — a three-month trek he calls a "pilgrimage" through Japan.

News photo
Mark Gibbens displays a banner that reads "Not smoking is love" in Bunkyo Ward, Tokyo, on Monday.

Starting from Cape Sata in Kagoshima Prefecture in April, Gibbens has passed through a number of prefectures so far, including Fukuoka, Tokushima, Kyoto, Aichi and Shizuoka.

After walking over 1,500 km, Gibbens has achieved a milestone, reaching Tokyo by the end of May. The other, more important part of his mission, raising awareness among Japanese about the dangers of smoking, is likely to prove even more challenging.

"What this country doesn't give its people is information on tobacco," Gibbens told The Japan Times. "And what I'm hoping to do by walking is advertise the message — 'kin-en wa ai' (Not smoking is love)."

Gibbens said the 88 Temple circuit in Shikoku, where he lives and teaches English, inspired his own pilgrimage.

"The pilgrimage around Shikoku is a walking prayer for something to happen," the 43-year-old Gibbens said. "What I am doing is a walking prayer that the government or the medical associations or whoever will provide more information to the people (about) the danger of tobacco."

An Australian, Gibbens pointed out the huge difference between antismoking measures in his home country and Japan.

In Australia, where Gibbens was a nurse for 12 years, there is a comprehensive education program to teach schoolchildren about the dangers of drugs, alcohol and tobacco, he said, and the government frequently runs antismoking advertisements.

These efforts are paying off. According to the Household Drug Survey conducted as part of the Australian government's 2004 National Drug Strategy, the number of smokers fell by about 30 percent between 1991 and 2004.

The Japanese government, by contrast, faces a conflict of interest when it comes to tobacco policy because while the health ministry is trying to cut the number of people who light up, the Finance Ministry continues to rake in revenues from its control of just over half the stock in Japan Tobacco Inc., the former state tobacco monopoly.

Although the number of smokers is declining, data from JT data show that 29.2 percent of Japanese are still smokers, a proportion equal that of Australia 30 years ago, Gibbens said.

"Governments are there to support the people and provide for the welfare of the people," Gibbens reckoned. "That is the role of government. It's not there to make profits."

At this point in his pilgrimage, walking an average of 40 km per day, Gibbens has lost four toenails, had 10 blisters, suffered a swollen foot and lost 3.5 kg.

But despite the hardships, Gibbens is determined to press on. He plans to continue his journey, reaching Cape Soya on the northern tip of Hokkaido by July 9.

"More than 100,000 people are dying in Japan every year (from tobacco related illnesses). This problem needs to be humanized down to its base level, which is life and death," Gibbens said.

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