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Saturday, June 14, 2008

Lawmakers form group to tackle touchy tobacco issues


Staff writer

Lawmakers formed a nonpartisan group Friday to discuss the issues surrounding tobacco, including tax revenue and health risks, amid calls by some to triple the price of a pack of smokes to ¥1,000.

Influential politicians are in the group, including former Liberal Democratic Party Secretary General Hidenao Nakagawa and ex-Democratic Party of Japan President Seiji Maehara.

At its inaugural meeting, members said they were aiming to draft an action outline during the extraordinary Diet session expected in the fall, when debate on major tax reforms is expected to ensue.

"As Diet members, we need to consider tobacco issues from the viewpoint of the public's health and medical care," said Nakagawa, who admitted being a heavy smoker.

Nakagawa said tobacco issues need to be discussed from a broad perspective, encompassing issues like raising cigarette prices and decreasing the number of smokers, cutting medical costs and increasing tax revenue.

Nakagawa raised eyebrows after reportedly suggesting a tobacco tax hike that would lift the price of one pack to ¥1,000, or more than three times the current price.

Maehara said the emphasis on prices is misplaced.

"I think too much interest has turned to cigarette prices," he said. "The discussion on tobacco did not begin with (how to increase) revenue and 'let's collect money from where we can.' "

The tobacco industry in Japan was monopolized by the government until 1985, when it was privatized. But the Finance Ministry continues to be Japan Tobacco Inc.'s largest shareholder, owning 50.02 percent of its stock.

Too much attention on "raising tobacco prices could result in a sharp fall in Japan Tobacco stock, damaging the government's share," Maehara said.

Such a drastic hike in tobacco prices is sure to trigger protests from the company, as well as smokers and farmers. But protests may be fruitless, said DPJ lawmaker Yoko Komiyama.



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The Japan Times

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