Bettcher and his team are especially concerned about the effects of secondhand smoke, which reportedly kill about 15,000 people a year in the country.
“The situation for preventing passive smoking in Japan is on a level with that in a developing nation,” added Manabu Sakuta (via Reuters), the chairman of the antismoking nonprofit Japan Society for Tobacco Control.
Smoking is largely entrenched in Japanese culture, and while the country’s laws discourage smoking in public spaces, there are no penalties for allowing it. For example, it’s not uncommon for smoking sections in bars and restaurants to bleed out into the nonsmoking sectors. And while smoking is technically prohibited in hospitals and schools, medical staff and teachers still sometimes smoke directly outside the facilities’ doors.
“The tobacco issue is something that can’t really be solved in a Japanese manner,” Kazuo Hasegawa, a nonsmoker who developed lung cancer, recently told Reuters. “Without outside pressure, Japan won’t move on this.”
The pressure, he and many others hope, will come from the International Olympic Committee, which has worked with past Olympic hosts to ensure a ban on smoking in all Olympic venues. In Rio, for example, there were only a limited number places people could smoke outdoors. The IOC instituted similar smoking bans ahead of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver and the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. The IOC failed to institute as strict a ban ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, however, because of smoking’s popularity in Russia. According to Bloomberg, organizers were afraid a stricter ban would harm attendance.
The IOC appears to be struggling with those same issues now in Japan, but the issue is even more complicated because of the ties between the tobacco industry and the Japanese government — which ran Japan Tobacco Inc., the country’s largest cigarette manufacturer, until the mid-1980s. The Japanese government still holds a 30 percent stake in the business.
Moreover, cigarette sales still account for a large chunk of tax revenue, said Toshiharu Furukawa, a lawmaker for Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party. He added the issue is even touchier because many lawmakers are part of the 30 percent of Japan’s male smoking population. (That number has declined significantly from 80 percent in 1965.)
One of those lawmakers is Furukawa’s lawmaking colleague Wataru Takeshita, who lamented (via the Japan Times) last month, “As a cigarette lover, I feel like [a ban] is not a good idea — how would I live if smoking is banned everywhere?”
Takeshita suggested restaurant owners should get to choose whether to allow smoking in their establishments and leave a sign at the door.
Anything less than a complete ban in indoor public spaces would not be enough, however, according to Bettcher, WHO’s director for prevention of noncommunicable disease.
“A recent newspaper described Japan as a ‘paradise for smokers,’ and I’m sure it wouldn’t want that title,” Bettcher said (via Reuters). “It’s not a good impression to give.”