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A smoke-free Tokyo as an Olympic legacy

To enforce or not to enforce a comprehensive indoor smoking ban is the question facing Japan as it prepares to host the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games. In response to an agreement between the International Olympic Committee and the World Health Organization to organize the games in a smoke-free environment, the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry prepared a bill proposing a comprehensive indoor smoking ban in public places, including bars and restaurants. The bill’s submission to the Diet, however, was deferred due to strong opposition from die-hard, pro-smoker groups within the ruling Liberal-Democratic Party.

The risks of smoking are well known. The WHO reports that smoking kills more than 7 million people worldwide each year. What makes the matter worse is that this number includes nearly one million victims of secondhand or passive smoking, in which non-smokers, including pregnant women and children, are exposed to smoke at restaurants, offices and other public places, as well as in their homes. WHO points out that there are more than 4,000 chemicals in tobacco smoke, of which at least 250 are known to be harmful and more than 50 are known to cause cancer, and that the link between secondhand smoking and certain health problems, such as respiratory infections, heart disease, lung cancer and asthma, have been established.

Japan is lagging behind other developed countries in its efforts to curb smoking in public places, as some 50 countries have enforced comprehensive indoor smoking bans. While the number of adult smokers in Japan has dropped steadily over the last few decades to less than 20 percent of the total population as of 2015, tobacco still claims the lives of nearly 150,000 Japanese each year, and one-tenth of these deaths are said to be caused by secondhand smoke.

The WHO urges the Japanese government to enforce strict indoor smoking bans as soon as possible to safeguard the health of the country’s nonsmokers, as well as that of visitors from overseas, whose number reached a record 24 million last year. The organization maintains that the separation of smoking and nonsmoking areas, a measure practiced widely in many public places in Japan, including some bars and restaurants, does not sufficiently prevent exposure to secondhand smoke and still presents a health hazard to nonsmokers.

With the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games approaching, the ministry became seriously concerned about Japan’s image as a smoker’s paradise and proposed stricter legislation that bans smoking in all eateries — although allowing proprietors to create smoking rooms — while bars and similar establishments whose size is under 30 sq. meters would be exempt. LDP lawmakers, who are either associated with Japan’s pro-tobacco lobby or smokers themselves, on the other hand, contended that such a bill, if enacted, would harm small- and medium-size bars and restaurants, and remained determined to block the legislation. Unable to find a compromise, the government had to give up submitting the proposed bill in the just-ended regular Diet session.

The claim that strict indoor smoking bans would hurt the business of small- and medium-size bars and restaurants is not convincing, however. Similar concerns were expressed when both New York City and New York State implemented their comprehensive smoke-free workplace laws prohibiting smoking in all of their restaurants and bars in 2003. But a report released by the city the following year concluded that business receipts for restaurants and bars had increased, employment had risen, and the number of new liquor licenses issued had increased — all signs that New York City bars and restaurants were prospering.

A survey released by Zagat, a restaurant review guide, in 2004 also said, “The city’s recent smoking ban, far from curbing restaurant traffic, has given it a major lift.” More importantly, a 2007 study by the American Journal of Public Health reported that there were 3,813 fewer hospital admissions for heart attacks in New York than there would have been without the ban in 2004 and that the reduction in hospitalizations saved New Yorkers $56 million in health care costs.

With the proposal of the legislation to the Diet postponed, it’s become uncertain whether Japan can put a comprehensive indoor smoking ban in place ahead of the 2020 games. However, a ray of hope came when Yuriko Koike, the popular governor of Tokyo, declared recently that she would make indoor smoking bans one of her new party’s campaign promises for the July 2 Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election. Koike, who left the LDP to become head of the Tomin First no Kai (Tokyoites First) on June 1, pledged that her party would implement a comprehensive indoor smoking ban in Tokyo to eliminate the risk of secondhand smoking if it won the elections.

Koike’s campaign promise has been supported by other political parties that cooperate with her party in the metropolitan assembly, including Komeito. If Koike’s party and its allies manage to secure a majority in the race, there is a good chance that she can make Tokyo a smoke-free metropolis by passing an ordinance in time for the 2020 Games, for which Koike as the governor of the capital will play the important role of host.

The world’s attention will naturally be focused on Tokyo’s performance during the mega sporting event. What is more important than its performance during the Summer Games, however, is the question as to what kind of legacy Tokyo can leave for the future generation of the people in Japan. To make Tokyo a smoke free-capital would undoubtedly be a legacy of the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics that not only Tokyo but also Japan as a whole can be proud of.

A former United Nations official, Hitoki Den is a commentator based in New York. He is the author of “Kokuren wo Yomu: Watashino Seimukan Noto Kara” (“A Story of the U.N.: From the Notes of a Political Affairs Officer”) and many articles on U.N. and Asian issues.


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