Japan wrestles over smoking ban as Olympics loom

Tokyo risks being one of the unhealthiest Olympic Games hosts in years, as an anti-smoking law exposes deep rifts over tobacco tax revenue, personal freedom and the dangers of passive smoking, which kills thousands of Japanese each year.

There is pressure on the Japanese capital ahead of the 2020 Summer Games, including from the International Olympics Committee (IOC), to follow Rio de Janeiro and other recent Olympic venues in banning smoking in all public places to create a healthy sporting environment.

But an initial proposal for a blanket ban on smoking indoors across Japan was opposed by pro-smoking politicians, restaurateurs and Japan Tobacco, which is one-third government-owned and paid the state $700 million in dividends in 2015.

The health ministry scaled back its plan, to allow smoking indoors in spaces around 30 square metres (323 square feet) as long as adequate ventilation is installed. But opponents say this will still hurt Japan’s many eateries, restrict individual freedom, and dent tobacco tax revenues – which topped 2 trillion yen ($18 billion) in 2014-15.

Natsuko Takami, who runs a Tokyo pub that is small enough to allow smoking under the revised bill, fears losing money as she can’t afford new ventilation, and could be fined 500,000 yen if a customer lit up. The smoker could be fined 300,000 yen. “I think people would stop coming,” she said, adding that being able to smoke and drink helps reserved Japanese open up.

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) health committee, whose support is essential to introducing the bill in parliament, won’t meet ministry officials, saying the revised bill is too strict. The committee chair, Naomi Tokashiki, acknowledges there should be a law that protects against second-hand smoke, but says Japan’s cultural emphasis on good manners and sensitivity to others should suffice. “I believe Japanese people really are considerate of others,” she said. “It’s more important for us to trust people than enact a really repressive law.”

Not so, say health authorities, pointing to 15,000 deaths a year from second-hand smoke, mostly women and children. “It’s not a question of manners, we’re looking at the impact on health,” said a ministry official involved in crafting the bill who declined to be named due to the issue’s sensitivity.

“We’ve basically allowed people their independence, but the situation hasn’t changed,” he said. “Something more is needed.” It now seems unlikely the law will be put to a vote in the current parliamentary session, which ends on June 18.

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