Saturday 17 March 2018

Japan as a Smoker's Paradise: Manners Maketh Man?

MHLW Passive Smoking Logo Mark
Preparations began last week to submit a bill to strengthen measures against passive smoking (jyudō kitsuen bōshi taisaku no kyōka =受動喫煙防止対策の強化). Jyudō means passive, while kitsuen - literally to consume smoke (=kemuri) - is the word for smoking. Japan is infamously lax in its "no-smoking" (kin'en =禁煙) regulations - it lies in the bottom of the WHO's four-stage scale for passive smoking - but with the Olympics rapidly approaching there has been pressure to tighten the rules. The final bill, however, although introducing fines for the first time, has been massively watered down, ostensibly due to pressure from the restaurant industry (video in Japanese here). In particular the "small-eatery exemption" (Japanese graphic here) was raised from 30㎡ to 150㎡ in the final proposal. This means that most small, independently run restaurants and bars will continue to allow smoking "at their discretion".

Even though smoking rates have dropped in recent years - from 27.7% in 2003 to 18.2% today - many visitors to Japan remain perplexed at Japanese ambivalent attitude towards smoking. The oft heard view is that smoking is a matter of manners and should not be regulated by the law. With this mantra in mind, smoking in the street has been banned by many cities, including around Tokyo, ironically forcing many smokers inside and encouraging the spread of "segregated" smoking corners, sections, and rooms (where more often than not the smoke simply wafts over to the "non-smoking" section). The fact that the government is trumpeting that the new bill will bring in a total ban on smoking on hospital and school premises, and inside public offices, shows just how far behind Japan remains in terms of international norms. I am reminded of this whenever I walk past my local school at weekends and see a cluster of baseball coaches puffing away just outside the school gate. The existence of the ubiquitous cigarette vending machines (pictured) is a further example.
Picture of a cigarette vending machine and small windows selling tobacco goods attached to a new house
A cigarette vending machine & "tobacco" kiosk attached to a house, providing income for the owners
A big change in smoking culture in Japan recently has been the huge popularity of IQOS heat-not-burn "smokeless" cigarettes. In 2014, Nagoya was the first place (together with Milan) where these type of cigarettes were released, and they became available nation-wide in 2016. Demand has apparently outstripped capacity and the conversion rate from regular cigarettes is said to be 72%. Coming out of Harajuku Station there is a small IQOS shop which boasted long lines when it first opened. The popularity of IQOS is reflected in the new law: whereas conventional cigarettes will only be allowed in closed spaces in larger restaurants, heat-not-burn cigarettes will be allowed in separate but open smoking sections - despite evidence that the fumes still contain cancer-causing chemicals.

UPDATE: Frustrated at the central government's weak legislation, Tokyo adopted a much stricter ordinance in June to crack down on secondhand smoke. Just how strict is highlighted by signs (pictured) recently popping up in parks and public spaces asking people to make efforts to prevent passive smoking in order to protect children.