A Nation Committed to Puffing...Starts Trying to Stifle the Smoke

When Machida Public Health Center in suburban Tokyo decided to warn residents in January of the dangers of smoking, the hazards it listed seemed incontrovertible: Smoking is addictive, causes cancer and a host of other illnesses, and wastes vast sums of money. Reasonable enough? Not according to the Tokyo Tobacco Retailers Assn. It complained the advice was biased--and demanded a correction, pointing out that "some people think cigarettes raise concentration and alertness, calm nerves, reduce anger, and help people communicate smoothly."

The Machida health office stood firm. But in a society that values consensus, such pressure has resulted in Japan's being the most smoke-friendly of all developed nations: 53% of Japanese men smoke, compared with 27% in the U.S. Among Japanese women, however, only 13% smoke, compared with 22% in the U.S. But more women in their 20s and 30s are taking up the habit, apparently seeing it as a mark of independence. In 1993, lung cancer overtook stomach cancer as Japan's foremost cancer killer, and it became the leading cause of death overall in 1998. Nearly 51,000 people died of lung cancer in 1998, up from around 10,000 in 1970.

Japan's reluctance to kick the habit stems in part from tobacco's role as a cash cow for the government. The law regulating Japan Tobacco--a former nationalized monopoly, still 70% state-owned--states that "the sound development of our national tobacco industry is planned to harness a source of revenue." In the fiscal year ended in March, 2000, the Finance Ministry earned more than $400 million in profit from tobacco.

Thus, measures to reduce smoking in Japan have been half-baked. There are no laws governing no-smoking areas, and few restaurants have them. Warnings on packets merely say--in small type--that cigarettes "may damage your health." Although a new law imposes a $4,000 fine for selling cigarettes to minors, no one has been prosecuted. That's not surprising, since teenagers have their pick of 550,000 vending machines. There is a small antismoking movement in Japan, but it gets little media attention.

WAVED AWAY. Last year, the Ministry of Health & Welfare (MHW) proposed that a new program, Health Japan 21, should include a target of halving smoking by 2010. But a series of public hearings produced angry opposition, mostly from tobacco retailers, and the goal was abandoned. "The MHW is not weak in antismoking measures," insists Shin Ushiro, deputy director of the ministry's office for lifestyle-related disease control. "But we wanted a target that everyone would agree on."

Consensus in Japan normally means protecting business. Smoke shops are already on the defensive, since deregulation made it easier for supermarkets and convenience chains to compete with them. Most cigarette stores sell other products, too--such as candy, liquor, and stationery--but if smoking were cut in half, "very few would survive," says Tatsumi Matsubara, director of the tobacco retailers' group. Some people, of course, might consider that an appropriate fate.

Instead of trying to get smokers to kick the habit, Japan is trying to make them less annoying. After a 1996 report by the Health & Welfare and Labor Ministries, workplaces have been trying to segregate smokers and nonsmokers. Most offices, railroad stations, and other public buildings now have smokers' corners. To make these more effective, a new breed of air-freshening machine has appeared. Yamatake Corp., for example, makes a smoking counter on wheels that smokers can lean on, as well as a smoking booth--an enclave surrounded by glass walls, containing seats and an air filter. About 80,000 such devices are now sold each year, according to Kazuteru Morita, a Yamatake manager.

Under pressure not to encourage the young to take up smoking, the tobacco industry in 1998 abandoned TV, radio, and movie ads--but continues to use billboards, newspapers, and magazines. It still runs TV "manners advertisements" that encourage smokers not to throw butts on the street. Grouses lawyer Yoshio Isayama, who works on antismoking cases: "These efforts give smoking a good image." Which no doubt is exactly what they're meant to do.

By Sebastian Moffett in Tokyo

Edited by Harry Maurer

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