Cabby fights for a clean ride in smoker-friendly Japan

The number of smoke-free cabs has surged since a 2005 ruling in a case brought by Koichi Yasui.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Fresh Air: Koichi Yasui has seen progress in his 20-year battle for smoke-free cabs in Japan, where smoking has long been popular.
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In a country once dubbed a smoker's paradise, Koichi Yasui's decades of tireless efforts to promote smoke-free taxis haven't always been easy.

Twenty years ago, his was the first government-approved smoke-free cab to troll Tokyo's streets. But rather than follow suit, his cab-driver colleagues got angry – as did customers and officials from the government and the industry association.

"Some people were yelling at me to be ashamed of this action and get lost," he recalls. "Others crushed my car garage and broke my apartment's door lock. I was so fearful I would put a wooden sword next to the pillow and go to bed."

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But times are changing.

In the past three years, the number of smoke-free taxis has skyrocketed from just 2 percent of taxis – 5,364 – to 150,192. The rate has risen to 60 percent of all cabs, according to the Japan Federation of Taxicab Associations and the Association of Self-employed Cab Drivers.

"Cab drivers are working hard at the cost of their health due to passive inhalation of cigarette smoke. Smoking in a taxi also causes health damage to passengers," says the cabby, who himself has struggled with health problems. "A total ban on smoking in taxis must be legalized."

Yasui, who wears a conservative suit, starched shirt, and tie, says he keeps his roomy car tidy every day in keeping with his motto of clean air. He has also made it a rule, he notes, to take a bath before work since he became a self-employed cabby in 1975.

The surge of smoke-free cabs, he says, was largely the result of the 2005 ruling of the Tokyo District Court in a lawsuit brought by Yasui, two other cab drivers, and 23 passengers who demanded compensation from the government for its failure to actively curb smoking in taxis. The court ruled that "a total ban on smoking in taxis is desirable" but rejected compensation.

"That was, in effect, our victory," says Bungaku Watanabe, one of the plaintiffs and director of the Tokyo-based Tobacco Problems Information Center.

Mr. Yasui had waited for that kind of lawsuit for 15 years. At first, he had trouble finding a lawyer, as they saw no prospect of winning at a time when very few smoke-free taxis were on the streets and tobacco vending machines were everywhere. And Japan's tobacco industry was a government-run monopoly until 1985, with the government still owning 50 percent of the shares of Japan Tobacco, the world's third-largest cigarette maker.

"Even now, Japan is still far behind when it comes to antismoking measures," says Manabu Sakuta, president of Japan Society for Tobacco Control (JSTC).

That contradicts Japan's image as one of the world's healthiest nations. But "While the government has not taken the necessary steps to protect people's health," says Mr. Sakuta, "grass-roots movements have made an increasing number of people aware of secondhand smoke risk."

The percentage of male smokers in Japan has declined to about 40 percent from 45.8 percent in 2005. In 1995, some 60 percent of males smoked. The number of female smokers has not changed, hovering at about 13 to 15 percent. More and more restaurants and public places have smoke-free zones. Chiyoda Ward, which is located in the middle of Tokyo, made 30 percent of its public areas smoke-free in 2002, and gradually expanded them to 70 percent. Its target is 100 percent by March 2010.

Other local governments across the country have taken similar measures. Kanagawa Prefecture, southwest of Tokyo, has proposed what would be the nation's first ban on smoking in all public areas.

Still, some taxis smell like ashtrays and people still puff away. Some witness white plumes of smoke rising in designated smoking areas. Cigarette prices are lower than those in Western countries, with a pack of cigarettes going for ¥300, or $2.80. As tax constitutes ¥189 (or 63 percent) of the price, total tobacco-tax revenue reaches around $21 billion per year.

Buoyed by the spread of antismoking measures, however, a group of Japanese politicians formed a non-partisan parliamentary group two weeks ago, calling for a tripling of cigarette prices to ¥1,000 yen a pack in a bid to cover increasing social security costs and safeguard health.

Such a tax hike "could bring a destructive influence to tobacco farmers, local economy, and the tobacco industry," reads a statement issued by Japan Tobacco Inc (JT).

Meanwhile, Mr. Yasui has taken his case to court again. He has filed a lawsuit against the government and JT for failing to inform people of the risks of second-hand smoke.

"I would like to strike a blow against the government and the tobacco giant. This is my way to contribute to society. If I take action, more people will become aware of the issue of second-hand smoke," he declares. "Since I am a guy who did not even graduate from primary school [during the chaotic days after World War II], that's about all I can do."

Yasui says he is driven in part by wanting to spare others the agonizing experiences he had before his cab became smoke free.

"Some passengers would not let me roll down a window to ventilate the car even when they lit up inside," he recalls. "I don't want anyone to go through such a terrible hardship."

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