Will Japan really get tough on smoking or is it just hot air?
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Will Japan really get tough on smoking or is it just hot air?

TOKYO’S Olympics in 2020 has spurred the Japanese health ministry to ponder tighter laws on smoking, in attempt to clean up the nation’s public health image as being smoke-friendly.

This month, Japan’s health ministry unveiled the country’s strictest-ever smoking restrictions, although it was a watered-down version from the original proposal. The first had envisioned a blanket ban on all indoor smoking areas across all public institutions, from schools and hospitals to municipal offices, eateries and hotels.

After vocal opposition from Japan Tobacco (JT) and small business owners, however, the ministry bowed to public pressure and relaxed some of the rules.

The new proposal, to be submitted to Parliament in June, now excludes establishments less than 30 square metres in size – making many bars and restaurants in high-density Japanese cities exempt – and allows venues to have a designated smoking room. If approved, rule-breakers would face a steep penalty of JPY300,000 – almost US$3,000.

SEE ALSO: Japan’s bid to go smoke-free for 2020 Olympics faces strong resistance

“We decided to draft a Bill because many believe Japan is behind on preventing exposure to secondhand smoke,” the ruling Liberal Democrat party’s health director Naomi Tokashiki told the Wall Street Journal this month.

“We also want to make a smoke-free Olympics and give foreigners who come for the Games a good impression of Japan’s attitude towards smoking.”

Still, even these weakened restrictions are facing challenges as some MPs from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party have expressed opposition to the reform.

The country’s finance minister Taro Aso, considered a loose cannon by fellow MPs, has even questioned the link between smoking cigarettes and lung cancer.


Japan’s Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso (C) speaks during a visit to a port in Colombo May 2, 2013. Source: Reuters/Dinuka Liyanawatte/File Photo

Kicking the habit

Historically, Japan has an entrenched culture of smoking. Nevertheless, rates of smoking in Japan have continually dropped since 1996 and smoking prevalence among Japanese men last year dipped below 30 percent for the first time since government surveys began in 1965.

In recent years, many companies and local governments have put in place their own bylaws and restrictions. Smoking while walking has become a fineable offence in many large cities since 2002.

Nevertheless, the World Health Organisation (WHO) gave Japan’s efforts to eradicate secondhand smoke its lowest rating in 2015, calling into question if the country will be considered a responsible country according to the so-called Tobacco Free Olympics body in time for the 2020 games.

Around 1 percent of the country’s tax revenue comes from duty paid on cigarette purchases and the government still owns a 33 percent stake in JT.

Out of step with the world

In terms of advanced economies, and even nations with high rates of smoking like neighbouring China and South Korea, Japan’s tobacco policy is miles behind.

Almost 50 countries worldwide have already implemented blanket bans on smoking indoors.

Cigarettes in Japan remain relatively cheap at around JPY430 – less than US$4 – and are labelled with only modest health warnings. In comparison, an average packet of cigarettes in tobacco-loving France costs around US$7.50, 10 bucks across the channel in the UK, while Australia hits consumers for a whopping AUD20 (US$15) per pack or more.

SEE ALSO: Tobacco giants target Australia’s plain packaging legislation

Susan Mercado, Manila Director of the World Health Organisation (WHO), told Japan Times that “countries such as the Republic of Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, Vietnam and cities including Beijing and Shanghai, China… have already introduced comprehensive smoking bans.”

Smoking kills 130,000 Japanese people every year, with some 15,000 more dying of passive smoke-related illnesses.

WHO Director Margaret Chan has declared war on big tobacco, vowing to “make sure that the tobacco industry goes out of business.” The Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) was the first global public health treaty negotiated under the auspices of WHO, and Japan signed the convention in June 2004.

Back in 2014, a delegation of Japanese parliamentarians promised the FCTC Secretariat in Geneva a 100 percent smoke-free Tokyo and other reforms to reduce the impact of passive smoking prior to the Olympic games in 2020.

Yet Japan’s progress in implementing tobacco reform to date has been slow.

Nevertheless, Japan Tobacco International (JTI) lobbyist Ben Townsend says that “the [FCTC] process has been increasingly exclusionary and lacking integrity, balanced decision-making and transparency.” JTI’s glossy new headquarters, funnily enough, is also located in Geneva.

Big tobacco resists change

Japan’s government long controlled the tobacco industry via a state-owned monopoly which operated until the 1980s. This was converted to the publicly traded company, Japan Tobacco, in 1985.

The company created its international tobacco division JTI in 1999 with the goal of becoming “the most successful and respected tobacco company in the world.” JTI – whose best-known brands include Benson & Hedges, Camel, and Winston – is now the world’s third largest transnational tobacco company.

Just this week, JTI was reportedly in talks with Palmer & Harvey, one of Britain’s largest private corporations, to help pump funds into the ailing tobacco company.

In 2012, the Japanese government sold one-sixth of the company’s outstanding shares to raise JPY500 billion to finance reconstruction from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. It retains around a third of the company’s shares, and JT remains a powerful company, operating also in agribusiness, food and pharmaceutical production, engineering and real estate.

According to Professor Kelley Lee, a health sciences expert from Simon Fraser University, Asian tobacco companies like JTI are ‘going global’ with their business strategies. JT began expanding into the global market in the late 1990s with the help of the Japanese government, who owned 50 percent of the company until 2013.

“Their aim is to grow their share of the world market through increased marketing, new products and lower prices. This is likely to mean more smokers worldwide,” says Lee.

SEE ALSO: Indonesia’s tobacco bill stubbed out but concerns remain

Despite lobbying against the changes, tobacco firms appear to be already responding to an anticipated crackdown on smoking in Japan. JT and fellow multinational giant Philip Morris Japan have begun moving into developing the smokeless “vape” market.

President of Philip Morris Japan Paul Riley hopes that smokeless tobacco will account for half of the Japanese tobacco market by 2020.


A customer tries a Philip Morris’ “iQOS” smokeless tobacco e-cigarette at an iQOS store in Tokyo, Japan, March 3, 2016. Source: Reuters/Toru Hanai

Given its hold in markets across Asia, Europe and Africa, JTI’s stake in the global tobacco market seems unlikely to take a massive hit from the modest smoking reforms in Japan. Still, the company appears likely to continue to wield significant influence over the debate, combating reform.

“Their success will mean a further increase to the already six million deaths [globally] caused by tobacco use each year,” says Lee.

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