Japan's Restaurants Thwart Push Toward `Smoke-Free' Olympics

(Bloomberg) -- Japan’s plans to make Tokyo “smoke free” ahead of the Olympic Games hit a fresh roadblock as lawmakers remain deadlocked over a bill to ban the use of cigarettes in indoor public spaces after a backlash from the nation’s restaurant industry.

The health ministry’s bill, which aims to restrict smoking in public places such as schools, hospitals, government buildings, bars and restaurants, is opposed by about 90 percent of the lawmakers in Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party. They argue it would put bars and restaurants out of business.

Japan's Restaurants Thwart Push Toward `Smoke-Free' Olympics

Yoshihide Suga

Photographer: Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg

Even after Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga ordered Health Minister Yasuhisa Shiozaki to persuade the LDP to support the bill, it remains blocked for discussion by the party’s health-care committee because neither side has compromised. The government hasn’t given up on the proposal because this could be the last chance for Japan to have a nationwide law that addresses second-hand smoke, according to the committee’s chair, Naomi Tokashiki.

The proposed restrictions have come under sharp fire from bars and restaurants. Shigeru Ishii, head of operations at the Japan Food Service Association, said last month that such businesses should be left to do what suits their customers. The pushback doesn’t reflect broader public trends, as the number of smokers in the country has steadily declined over years. About 18 percent of Japanese adults smoked every day or on occasion in 2015, compared with 24 percent a decade ago.

Stronger Voice

“The voice of business owners was much stronger than that of the health risks,” Tokashiki said in an interview on April 4. “Even lawmakers who understood the health risks were faced with conflicts of interest.”

Efforts to raise taxes and make the country smoke free have also long been complicated by the government ownership of a stake in Japan Tobacco Inc., which is among the world’s largest cigarette makers. Japan Tobacco in February forecast annual profit that missed analysts’ projections as it battles declining numbers of traditional smokers along with problems making its alternative e-cigarettes, and its shares have declined 19 percent over the past year.

The current proposal on the bill doesn’t take operators of various businesses into consideration and is too rigid, said Japan Tobacco spokesman Masahito Shirasu, reiterating a February statement. There’s a concern that the law won’t be reasonable and well-balanced, Shirasu said.

Second-Hand Smoke

An estimated 15,000 Japanese die from second-hand smoke every year. But the Asian country, which will host the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, doesn’t have national rules on smoking indoors. Some municipal governments have local regulations on smoking. For example, in areas of Tokyo, people can smoke indoors but not outside.

One group of lawmakers supporting smokers in March argued against the health ministry bill, saying cigarettes are luxury items and smoking is legal, therefore users shouldn’t be treated like villains.

“Places such as fast-food chains and family restaurants have been banning smoking and that’s happening voluntarily, not by force,” said Ishii. “We have to provide a variety of places so that customers can pick places that suit them. We want the government to encourage such movements.”

The proposed legislation will hurt restaurants in rural areas the most, with the least effect in cities like Tokyo, said Tokashiki, the LDP lawmaker.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga remains determined to push forward with the bill, saying on Monday that it should be submitted promptly.

‘Golden Opportunity’

More than 1 billion people smoke worldwide and 80 percent of them live in low- and middle-income countries, according to the Geneva-based World Health Organization. Tobacco kills about 6 million people every year, and more than 5 million of those deaths are directly due to smoking, while more than 600,000 are the result of non-smokers being exposed to second-hand smoke, the WHO says.

Japan's Restaurants Thwart Push Toward `Smoke-Free' Olympics

A No Smoking sign in the Naka-Meguro neighbourhood of Tokyo.

Photographer: Behrouz Mehri/AFP via Getty Images

Major cities in Asia and around the world including Beijing, London and New York already ban smoking in restaurants. The tobacco-free Olympics tradition began at the 1988 Winter Games in Calgary, Canada, and has continued ever since, according to the WHO.

“Tobacco control has lagged behind the rest of the world in Japan,” said Douglas Bettcher, director of prevention of noncommunicable diseases at the WHO, said at a briefing in Tokyo on April 7. “This really is the golden opportunity for Japan to better protect its people from the deadly effects of exposure to second-hand smoke.”

Satoshi Tanaka, who owns a skewered-chicken restaurant in Tokyo, leaves ashtrays on tables in his establishment that seats about 11 people. He says he’s never had a complaint from customers about smoking. “Smokers have become more sensitive to others than before,” said Tanaka. “I’m not sure if we need to bring up the rules to the international level.”

The government should push a law with flexibility and leave it to each local authority to decide on the level of restrictions, said Tokashiki.

“Japanese people will respond and behave naturally when given a direction,’’ she said.