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Tough task to have smoking rules meet world standards before Tokyo Olympics

The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare has compiled a plan for smoking regulations that would impose, in principle, a total ban on indoor smoking in public for the first time in Japan with an eye on the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics in 2020. Cities that have recently hosted the Olympic Games all introduced smoking regulations that would make those responsible for secondhand smoke subject to penalties, and the no smoking rule in public appears to be a global standard. Will Japan become a smoke-free country before hosting the big event?

    According to the health ministry's plan, a blanket smoking ban would be imposed on the premises of such places as medical institutions and schools, and indoor smoking would be prohibited at public offices and stadiums. While indoor smoking would also be banned at restaurants and business offices, these facilities would be able to set up smoking rooms in closed spaces. In other words, just separating smoking and non-smoking areas within a room -- a common practice in establishments such as restaurants in Japan -- would not be allowed under the ministry plan.

    "Are you willing to be hit with complaints by foreigners?" the ministry's Health Service Division director Tokuaki Shobayashi hurled at Japan Food Service Association officials -- the latter apparently not so keen about countermeasures against secondhand smoke -- during a public hearing on the ministry's smoking regulation plan with related organizations on Oct. 31. It is uncommon for bureaucrats, who usually maintain secretarial roles at ministry panel meetings such as writing up documents or summarizing arguments, to question meeting participants. Shobayashi's remark reflected the health ministry's determination to have the smoking regulation realized.

    The health ministry issued a total ban on smoking on the ministry's premises on Nov. 10 this year as the first central government body to implement such a rule. After introducing a no indoor smoking rule at the ministry building 10 years ago, smokers would have to use an outside smoking area for a cigarette break, but the latest regulation has barred ministry staff from using even the outdoor smoking area. The move was intended to set an example of the ministry plan, but staff members are allowed to use the smoking area during lunchtime and in the early evening -- still a long way to go before actually banning smoking on the ministry's premises.

    The World Health Organization and the International Olympic Committee are promoting a "tobacco-free Olympics." For example, the city of Rio de Janeiro introduced a regulation that made smoking on the premises of public places subject to punishment ahead of the Rio Olympics this past summer, while London banned indoor smoking with penalties for violating the ban. In South Korea, which is preparing for the 2018 Winter Games in the city of Pyeongchang, smoking is in general banned inside buildings, but smoking rooms will be permitted at restaurants and other facilities.

    While the health ministry's true intention is to introduce regulations as strict as ones in London, according to a senior ministry official, the ministry has made compromises after considering the reality in Japan, where restaurants only separate areas for smoking and non-smoking customers with partitions, and settled on smoking regulations close to those of South Korea.

    But why is indoor smoking so unpopular even when there are closed smoking rooms? Doctor Hiroyasu Muramatsu, director at Central Medical Clinic in Tokyo's Chuo Ward, says there are many people, such as those with asthma, who suffer from secondhand smoke. He adds, "In other countries, it's either you are allowed to smoke or you are not -- just separating smoking and non-smoking areas is a half-baked measure. A complete smoking ban inside buildings is easy to understand, and building owners would not have to spend money to set up smoking rooms."

    In a study conducted by University of Occupational and Environmental Health professor Hiroshi Yamato and others, the concentration of air pollutant particle PM2.5 inside a smoking room was up to 20 times higher than daily environmental standards -- on par with the air pollution level in Beijing during smog season. "The smoke leaks outside the room when the doors open," Yamato says.

    Meanwhile, Kanagawa and Hyogo prefectures that introduced anti-secondhand smoke regulations ahead of the implementation of a nationwide rule in April 2010 and April 2013, respectively, have allowed to some extent indoor smoking and the separation of smoking and non-smoking areas after being unable to fend off a backlash from the restaurant industry. While indoor smoking is banned at places such as movie theaters in Kanagawa Prefecture, restaurants and other businesses are given a choice between banning smoking and setting up separate zones for smokers and non-smokers. Businesses in Kanagawa Prefecture are required to put up a sign in front of establishments to show whether smoking is permitted or if there is separate smoking area inside. For smaller establishments, the rule is not mandatory. Meanwhile the Hyogo Prefectural Government permitted smoking in movie theaters and other such facilities under the condition that there is the "strict separation" of smoking and non-smoking areas.

    Nevertheless, how much the health ministry's smoking regulation plan can keep up with global standards depends on deliberations during next year's regular Diet session.

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