Secondhand Smoke in Lawless Japan

Japan has the highest life expectancy worldwide but its leadership could come to an end since the country ranks third for smoking rate in Asia and the lack of strong legislation on passive smoking puts lots of people at health risk. The 2020 Olympic and Paralympic games are giving an impetus to the relevant debate and more fitting regulations could be ready by 2019


by Pietro Dionisio

Degree in Political Science, International Relations

Cesare Alfieri School, University of Florence, Italy

  Secondhand Smoke in Lawless Japan


According to WHO, 21per cent of the world population aged 15 and above smoked tobacco in 2012. Men smoked at five times the rate of women (36 per cent and 7 per cent average rates respectively). Smoking among men was highest in the WHO Western Pacific Region, with 48 per cent of men smoking some form of tobacco.

The high use of tobacco and cigarettes accounts for non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses. As real killers, NCDs are responsible for almost 38 million deaths each year, including 17,5 million by cardiovascular diseases.

Though new data show a decrease in smokers worldwide, the governments are to be held accountable for ensuring far more drops in tobacco consumption.

In Japan smoking is a widespread practice, with available data showing a per person smoking rate  as high as 1,841 cigarettes per year in 2012. However, the percentage of adult smokers continues to drop: between 2003 and 2014 it declined from 27,7 per cent to 19,7 per cent, as confirmed by the cigarette market trend.

The stricter restriction on smoking, the rising awareness over health implications and an increase in the country consumption tax ( from 5 per cent in 2013 to 8 per cent a year later) making cigarettes more expensive, are among the main reasons.

In Japan smoking is a rooted practice free of any social stigma. In the past, smokers were allowed to light their cigarettes wherever they wanted to. Should others be unwilling to breath smoke, it was their job to find a smoke free place.

Fortunately, during the last decade things started changing. The “Nation’s Health Promotion Act 2002” was a first step wherein Article 25 states that “…those who are in charge of managing the facilities where many unspecified people gather shall make efforts in taking necessary measures to prevent passive smoking…” Facilities include schools, hospitals, government and municipal offices, restaurants, department stores, shops, hotels, trains and buses. However, violation of these duties does not entail any penalty.

In spite of this, smoking is not allowed in many public urban areas and is banned in public transports as well.

However, getting rid of cigarettes is not an easy task for Japan at a time when politicians are interested parties in the tobacco industry. Japan Tobacco inc. (JT), the only Japan tobacco manufacturer, was a government monopoly till privatization occurred in 1985. Currently,  the Japanese government holds a 33 per cent stake in JT and the Finance Ministry has a major role supervising the whole tobacco production, sale and cigarette price processes. What’s more, backers of the Liberal Democratic Party, serving as the majority party, include people involved in the tobacco production chain, from farmers to retail outlets. In short, these are credible reasons behind  the lack of a strictly regulated tobacco market yet.

Relevantly, even warning messages on cigarette packets are quite soft compared with other industrialized countries and only display a small size warning message without any image on it.

Against this, it is good news that, as Japan prepares for Tokyo Olympic games, the debate over smoking bans is intensifying while taking into account that heavy-smoking countries such as China and Russia introduced wider restrictions on tobacco when they hosted the Beijing 2008 summer games and the Sochi 2014 winter events, respectively.

Since last September, the Japanese government has been planning on enacting a secondhand smoke restrictive legislation. To this aim, the administration is about to swear in a special team tasked with figuring out measures to prevent passive smoking ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic games. The team will lay down detailed measures and its first meeting is expected for later this month.

The aforesaid legislation, predictably to be implemented in 2019, will oblige public utilities, including sport facilities, schools and hospitals, to completely ban smoking, and operators of hotels, restaurants and other facilities to implement measures establishing separate smoking and nonsmoking areas. Additionally, the new regulations will include penalties to be imposed on violators.

The measures above do align with the International Olympic Committee requirements calling for “Tobacco Free Games”. Since the Athens games of 2004, all cities and countries hosting Olympic games have been enforcing laws and ordinances not allowing smoking or establishing separate smoking and nonsmoking zones. Most of them also included penalties on individuals and facility operators who violate the regulations.

As such, while Japan must align with, the creation of a tobacco free society would aim far beyond as an overarching target whereby the government should get rid of the vicious circle of self-interests in the tobacco industry and more effectively serve nationwide health priority needs.