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Japan Tobacco Fights Rearguard Action Against Anti-Smoking Movement

No one in the room had ever met the elderly lady who came in late and sat by the door, but when it came time for her to speak as a new participant at the Metropolitan Association on Smoking or Health (MASH) meeting, she told her story in a frail voice.

About three years ago, she explained, her life changed when new neighbors moved into the apartment next door. The new neighbors are heavy smokers, and in fact are puffing on their cigarettes from the early morning to late at night, each and every day. In densely packed Tokyo, smoking neighbors often means the odor of cigarettes wafting through one’s own apartment, and that is certainly the case with this lady, who has become unable to escape the constant smell of cigarettes in her own little non-smoking household. She told the group that the smoke she is constantly subjected to has actually made her ill, and there is no means to convince her neighbors to stop smoking. She came to the meeting for advice, to learn if she has any recourse to recover her previous quality of life.

The practical answer is that the old lady has no rights in this matter. It is the smokers who hold the relevant “rights” in this case—their right to smoke within the privacy of their own homes. No national law, and indeed no local ordinance in Japan, covers such a situation as experienced by this elderly lady. She essentially has no recourse but to suffer in silence. Before the MASH meeting had even ended, she had already gathered her belongings and left.

At a very different meeting the previous day, amidst the local elite and television cameras, Tokyo Medical Association Chairman Haruo Ozaki explained that illnesses brought about by cigarette smoking are now the No. 1 cause of death in Japan, taking the lives of an estimated 128,900 people annually, including about 15,000 non-smokers who are subjected to smoke of others.

With the support of Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike, who was in attendance, Ozaki and his colleagues launched the “No Smoking Promotion Business Consortium” together with 23 major companies, understanding that a non-smoking environment is a key measure for the protection of employees and customers.

“It’s a human rights issue for workers,” explains Koki Okamoto, a pioneering anti-smoking lawyer turned Tokyo metropolitan assemblyman in Governor Koike’s Tokyoites First political party.

Japan has been known for decades as the advanced industrial nation slowest to grapple with the impacts of cigarette smoking. Many analysts attribute this sluggishness to the uniquely powerful position of Japan Tobacco (JT), which is not only a corporate giant in its own right, but also partially owned and politically protected by the Ministry of Finance and allied to other corporate giants such as Dentsu, the dominant player in the nation’s advertising industry.

JT itself rejects the charge that it has been playing this role. Masahito Shirasu, JT’s general manager of media relations, tells the Shingetsu News Agency, “We do not have such an alleged policy to prevent or weaken tobacco-related regulations either in Japan or in other countries. We agree that appropriate and balanced regulations are both necessary and right. We support evidence-based regulations accordingly.” He adds, “We are committed to being transparent about the health risks of smoking tobacco products, and we provide consumers with the right and factual information to help them make informed decisions on whether or not to smoke.”

Critics such as Okamoto don’t accept such explanations, and offer a specific example of how JT is currently wielding its enormous influence.

Both the Japanese national government and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government are introducing new regulations in 2020 that will impose significant restrictions on smoking in restaurants. The Tokyo ordinance is the stronger of the two, which will apply to almost 84% of existing restaurants and all restaurants opened after April 1, 2020.

Restaurants subject to the new regulations—both under the national legal revisions and the Tokyo ordinance—will be given a choice between going entirely non-smoking or else building special smoking rooms within the restaurant.

Okamoto alleges that not only is JT steering as many restaurants as possible toward the option of constructing special smoking rooms, but that JT has utilized its political muscle to induce both the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare as well as the Tokyo Metropolitan Government to offer taxpayer subsidies for the construction of special smoking rooms, thus reducing the number of restaurants that will go fully non-smoking.

While the JT representative did not specifically address this issue, he did say that “we believe that, like any other business, our expertise, knowledge, and experience are invaluable to the policy-making process related to our industry, and we regularly express our views and positions.”

For its part, the World Health Organization has long maintained that the establishment of smoking rooms does not adequately protect health—not least for the employees who must enter the room as part of their work duties.

Yumiko Mochizuki, associate director of the Japan Cancer Society, sides with the WHO position: “If the new legislation had secured a total ban, then it would have a positive health impact… but the tobacco industry is now very aggressively promoting smoking rooms under the current legislation, so we cannot foresee a positive impact.”

Adding a note of hopefulness, however, Mochizuki adds, “If society is more clever than the government, then society may take the lead”—thus acknowledging the importance of initiatives such as the formation of the No Smoking Promotion Business Consortium.

The upshot is that diners in Tokyo restaurants may soon find many more non-smoking venues than in the past, but practical assistance for the elderly lady who briefly joined the MASH meeting still seems many years in the future.

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