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Japan’s tobacco lobby seeks to head off indoor smoking ban

Push for country to adopt global norms opposed on grounds of existing outdoor prohibition

A Japanese plan to ban indoor smoking in public places before the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, bringing the country in line with most of the developed world, is facing fierce resistance from the country’s powerful tobacco lobby.

Japanese smoking rates fell from 27.7 per cent of adults in 2003 to 18.2 per cent in 2015. But the nation’s remaining smokers, who are still able to pursue their habit inside restaurants, bars and workplaces, enjoy a level of freedom long ago stripped from counterparts elsewhere in the world. Nearly 50 countries have imposed blanket bans on indoor smoking and early drafts of the health ministry’s proposed revisions to Japan’s Health Promotion Law cite the success of legislation in the UK, France, and elsewhere. However, 231 municipalities in Japan, including in Tokyo and other major cities, have since the mid-2000s prohibited smoking in the street. The bans are largely in the name of hygiene and aesthetics, but with more than half an eye to passive smoking. The “manners” drive has created the often bizarre situation where smokers sitting on terraces outside restaurants or bars are obliged to come indoors to light up. Japan Tobacco, the world’s fourth-biggest cigarette maker by sales, which is 33.35 per cent owned by the state, has seized on this oddity in an effort to dilute the blanket ban on indoor smoking initially proposed by the health ministry.: Pragmatism on nicotine could save lives Encouraging safer alternatives to smoking can help end epidemic It is not fair to cite the success of smoking bans in places like the UK, continental Europe and the US, said a JT spokesman, because most Japanese smokers do not have the same option of going outside. JT’s argument appears to have borne fruit. On Wednesday, when the health ministry unveiled a revised proposal, the demands were heavily watered down from earlier versions, allowing exemptions for Japan’s thousands of bars and restaurants occupying less than 30 square metres of floor space. Finance minister Taro Aso, whose state portfolio includes the JT stake, last month expressed doubts over the harmful effects of smoking, referring to “various people” who question the link between smoking and lung cancer. Such views are echoed by Japan’s tobacco lobby, which has the support of an estimated 100 parliamentary members of the ruling Liberal Democratic party.

Other groups aligned against the health ministry on its indoor smoking ban plans include a bar and restaurant industry fearful that business would be devastated. JT approaches the debate from a stated position that it does not believe the case has been proved that second-hand smoking is a cause of diseases such as lung cancer. The World Health Organization has meanwhile awarded Japan’s existing efforts to prevent passive smoking the lowest rating available and the Japanese government’s own research suggests that as much as 40 per cent of people eating or drinking out are exposed to passive smoking. On the subject of imposing an indoor smoking ban to clean up Japan’s image ahead of the Olympics, JT said the event should instead be used to publicise the success of the country’s “smoke segregation” policies that divide smoking and non-smoking zones inside buildings.

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