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Friday, Feb. 29, 2008

Smoking ban elusive despite WHO warning

Staff writer

The World Health Organization issued a report in February on the global tobacco epidemic, urging countries to enforce effective smoking bans in public places.

Despite recent moves to extend nonsmoking, for example in Tokyo taxis, Japan does not have any legal ban on smoking in public places, including eateries and bars.

And largely because of vested interests in the tobacco industry and the positive cultural perception of smoking in Japan, the introduction of a new law against lighting up in public places is unlikely to be passed anytime soon, according to experts.

The WHO report states that there is "no safe level" of exposure to secondhand smoke. Secondhand smoke exposure increases coronary heart disease risk in nonsmokers by 25 percent to 30 percent and the risk of lung cancer by 20 percent to 30 percent, it notes.

"Only a full smoking ban in all enclosed workplaces, including catering and drinking establishments, and all public buildings and transport, can protect the health of employees and nonsmokers," the WHO said in quoting a 2007 European Parliament members' report.

In 2004, Japan ratified the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which, among other things, stipulates measures on the reduction of tobacco demand and supply. But Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry officials emphasize that the convention does not oblige signatory states to enforce a complete smoking ban in public spaces.

The Health Promotion Law that took effect in Japan in 2003 urges managers of facilities that include schools, hospitals, theaters and restaurants to "make efforts" to take necessary measures to protect visitors from exposure to secondhand smoke, but without stipulating any penalty for violations.

"We regard countermeasures against smoking as important," health ministry official Hidenori Yamamoto said. But he stressed that the ministry will not take any new action in view of the latest WHO report.

Yosuke Hagimori, another health ministry official, said there is no momentum in the Diet or at ministry advisory panels for legislation to fully ban smoking in public places.

"Many people, including members of the ruling parties and advisory bodies, do not seem to be calling for new legislation, at least for now," he said.

In fact, the number of smokers in Japan has been on the decline thanks to the Health Promotion Law and increased health awareness among the public in recent years, Hagimori noted.

The latest Japanese male smoker ratio fell from 46.8 percent in 2003 to 39.3 percent in 2005, while that of women remained unchanged at 11.3 percent during the same period, according to the ministry.

But, Hagimori said, "In a society where tobacco has been recognized as luxury goods (and a lifestyle choice), it was difficult to suddenly enforce obligations (to ban smoking in public areas) when the law took effect."

According to Dr. Manabu Sakuta, chairman of the board of the Japanese Society for Tobacco Control, more than half of U.S. states, including New York and California, as well as Britain, Canada and Australia, will have completely banned smoking inside restaurants, bars and offices by 2010.

Japan lags far behind other developed nations in preventing secondhand smoke in public spaces, Sakuta said. He criticized Tokyo's indifference toward the latest WHO policy recommendations and said: "If these are not observed, we cannot save people's lives. The report is very important."

Sakuta called the Tobacco Enterprise Law "the source of all evil," and the reason Japan is far behind the rest of the developed world in taking preventive steps against secondhand smoke.

The law's preamble states that it "aims at soundly developing our country's tobacco industry, thereby contributing to securing stable fiscal revenues, and to developing a sound national economy."

The Finance Ministry depends on tobacco tax revenues as one of its fiscal resources, and many former ministry officials now work for Japan Tobacco Inc., Sakuta said, explaining why the government is reluctant to take further measures.

He said Japan's annual tobacco tax revenue ranges from around ¥2 trillion to ¥3 trillion, while public medical costs to treat tobacco-related illnesses range from ¥6 trillion to ¥7 trillion. "Knowing tobacco's effect on health, the government is not trying to do anything. It is betraying the people."

As one step, Sakuta suggested that first municipalities should designate public places as nonsmoking to give impetus for an eventual nationwide ban. "Ultimately, the Health Promotion Law should carry penalties for violations."

Sakuta also proposed that the health ministry appoint a private-sector specialist in smoking countermeasures who would be less influenced by the Finance Ministry.

Restaurants are divided over measures against secondhand smoke. Many allow customers to smoke even though they often separate smoking and nonsmoking seats, and very few bars are smoke-free.

Starbucks Coffee Japan, Ltd. bans smoking inside all of its outlets.

"As a coffee company, we regard the aroma of coffee as extremely important," spokesman Masahiko Yamazaki said. "We completely deny smokers who interfere with the coffee aroma."

The firm initially allowed smoking in two of its outlets but soon introduced a complete ban in early 1997, which was a rare move back then, Yamazaki said. "Tobacco had always been associated with the Japanese cafe culture."

Doutor Coffee Co., another big chain, mainly allows customers to smoke, except for some cafes in railway stations, for example.

The company sets up partitions and air-filtering equipment between smoking and nonsmoking zones. Spokesman Kazuhiro Sekine said the firm does not plan to enforce a full smoking ban.

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