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Editorial: Protect workers' health from secondhand smoke

Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) lawmaker Hideo Onishi has apologized for the latest take on his gaffe, in which he remarked that "cancer patients needn't work" during the ruling party's panel meeting on secondhand smoke countermeasures earlier this month.

"I have hurt the feelings of cancer patients," Onishi said on May 22. His verbal blunder came in the form of jeering during a meeting of the LDP's Health, Labor and Welfare Division on May 15, in response to fellow LDP lawmaker Junko Mihara's calls for support measures for cancer patients suffering from secondhand smoke at workplaces. Mihara herself is a cervical cancer survivor.

In Japan, more than 1 million people are estimated to be diagnosed with cancer annually, including many in the prime of their work careers. The harsh reality once again raises the compelling need to provide job assistance to cancer patients.

Employees who continue to work while suffering from cancer, asthma or other diseases, as well as pregnant women, are often put in a vulnerable position at workplaces. Some are forced to leave their jobs out of concerns that they may cause trouble to their company, while others are compelled to hide their diseases out of fear of discrimination against them.

In spite of his apology for his gaffe, Onishi defended his comment by saying, "I had meant that cancer patients needn't go out of their way to work at establishments where smoking is permitted." What is lacking here is consideration to people who struggle to make ends meet by going out of their way to work in such environments due to government constraints on social security expenditures.

There are also workers who cannot refuse to enter smoker-friendly restaurants and bars for business meetings, wining and dining with clients and farewell parties for co-workers. Quite a number of non-regular workers may also have no choice but to keep working at smoker-friendly establishments against their will as they don't have the luxury to choose better working environments.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's administration has advocated the promotion of the "dynamic engagement of all citizens" and has been discussing work-style reforms including achieving a better work-life balance among employees. The government-set Basic Plan to Promote Cancer Control Programs also aims to support cancer patients in their efforts to continue work while receiving medical treatment, among other key agenda.

To that end, measures are called for to improve working environments by taking employees' health issues into consideration. A myriad of medical papers published here and abroad have raised alarms against health damage triggered by secondhand smoke, such as lung cancer and heart disorders. However, this may not sink in among those who are free from imminent health concerns as secondhand smoke doesn't cause immediate health damage.

There is also a study that supports the causal relationship between sudden infant death syndrome and secondhand smoking. We must take it seriously that secondhand smoke poses detrimental effects on fetuses and children, who are too vulnerable to avoid such risks on their own.

Politicians are urged to engage in earnest discussions on the issue by taking to heart the health damage faced by children and other socially vulnerable people.

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