Japan, a tobacco bastion, now less tolerant of smokers

Kenichiro Watanabe lounges on a bench in Shibuya, one of Tokyo's busiest entertainment districts, and lights up a cigarette. Right behind him is a large no smoking sign.

The 22-year-old exhales a cloud of smoke. "These rules don't affect me," he said. "Nobody's checking. Nobody cares."

In a nation long considered a smoker's haven, it may take time for tobacco restrictions to hold sway. But now, antismoking efforts - including lawsuits and new restrictions - are moving forward as people grow less tolerant of Japan's nicotine-friendly culture.

"It's a simple fact that most people don't like tobacco smoke," says Mark Levin, an associate professor of law at the University of Hawaii, who studies Japan's tobacco-control movement. Moreover, the health risks and related costs are getting more attention. The antismoking "voices are being heard now," says Mr. Levin.

After World War II, Japan enjoyed a cigarette consumption boom, reaching a high in 1966 when more than 80 percent of Japanese males smoked. While today 50 percent of men and 14 percent of women smoke, cancer rates are catching up to consumption rates, says Yumiko Mochizuki-Kobayashi, an epidemiologist and section chief for the National Institute of Public Health in Tokyo.

Tobacco use in Japan remains among the highest in the industrialized world, and smoking norms are reminiscent of the US 30 to 40 years ago, Levin says. Japan Tobacco (JT), the country's largest cigarette manufacturer, says it doesn't keep data on minors who smoke, but tobacco control advocates estimate the number hovers around 20 percent.

But changes are surfacing that would have been unimaginable just five years ago. Train platforms - a refuge for workers to take a few drags during long commutes - are increasingly smoke-free. In a more dramatic step, Tokyo lawmakers passed a landmark ordinance in 2002, fining offenders up to $200 for smoking on public sidewalks. The move marked the world's first ban on lighting up in crowded outdoor areas.

"The government has reached the starting line of reducing tobacco use," Dr. Mochizuki-Kobayashi says. "Now it's time to figure out where to go from here."

It could be an uphill trudge. Japan's antitobacco laws are among the weakest in the developed world. Perhaps because the Japanese government and the tobacco industry are intertwined. More than 60 percent of JT is controlled by the Ministry of Finance. The alliance grew out of a need to secure revenues for the military and keep foreign tobacco interests at bay a century ago. As JT's major stakeholder, the Ministry of Finance sets cigarette prices at about $2.75 a pack and collects billions in cigarette tax revenues for government coffers.

Despite the state's ownership, a group of lawmakers in Parliament is now helping to push the antismoking agenda forward. In March, Japan signed the World Health Organization's Framework on Tobacco Control. It requires countries to impose tough restrictions on tobacco advertising and highlight health warnings on tobacco products.

The burgeoning antismoking movement threatens JT's profit margins here. The manufacturer has responded with ad campaigns calling on smokers to practice better etiquette.

"While JT does not want local authorities to uniformly regulate smoking in public spaces with penalties, the company does want to promote better smoking manners," says Hiroyoshi Ebara, head of JT's social environment creation division.

But money generated from tobacco sales comes at the expense of people's health, say some observers.

"The society at large incurs a great economic loss by the consumption of tobacco," says Tadao Hozumi, legal adviser for Japan's Tobacco Problems Information Center. "This is borne out of loss of manpower, early deaths, sickness.... The indirect toll far exceeds any revenue the government gets directly."

In 1998, six plaintiffs filed a lawsuit against JT claiming that they contracted smoking-related illnesses because there was no adequate health warning on the dangers of nicotine. It was the first lawsuit of its kind here.

Last October, the Tokyo District Court threw out the case, ruling that "the addictiveness of tobacco products is not so strong that one cannot quit smoking by one's own will."

The three living plaintiffs have appealed, and the case is scheduled for a hearing next week at the Tokyo High Court. Meanwhile, tobacco-control advocates say they are hopeful but realistic for what the future will bring. "No gain can be won at once," Mochizuki-Kobayashi says. "You have challenge, challenge, challenge."

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