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Some Japanese firms way ahead in making 'no smoking' the norm before 2020

A flag at the top of this photo at Acroquest Technology Co. in Yokohama's Kohoku Ward indicates that an employee is on a smoking break. If the employee does not return from the smoking break within seven minutes, a timer goes off, and the employee is fined 1,000 yen. (Mainichi)

In preparation for Japan's hosting of the 2019 Rugby World Cup and 2020 Summer Olympics, the government has set out to beef up measures to curb the public's exposure to secondhand smoke.

    Last October, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare proposed that workplaces be non-smoking as a general rule, while allowing for smoking rooms.

    Some smokers, however, argue that smoking helps release stress and promotes work efficiency, and that the conversations people have during smoking breaks are good opportunities for exchanging information. How then, have companies been encouraging smokers to kick the habit?

    Acroquest Technology Co., an IT company based in Yokohama, has instituted numerous strict rules on smoking. When an employee goes out for a smoke, they must put up a flag on their seat indicating they've left for a smoking break, and set a timer for seven minutes. To prevent sensitive information from leaking, conversation is not permitted inside the smoking room, and if employees are absent for more than seven minutes, they are fined 1,000 yen. Additionally, before smokers return to their seats, they must gargle and brush off their clothes to eliminate the smell of cigarette smoke.

    The office was non-smoking to begin with, but the emergency staircase had evolved into a makeshift smoking area, and the smell of smoke lingered on employees who smoked during work hours. In addition to at least one employee with asthma asking that something be done about the situation, some had complained that separate seating for smokers and non-smokers at company events and trips prevented them from enjoying a sense of unity.

    The issue was discussed at a monthly meeting in which all 80 or so employees get together. After about three months of debate, the company decided on smoking-related rules that in Japan would commonly be considered strict. Acroquest CEO Ryu Shinmen, who was himself a smoker, measured how long it took him to leave his seat, smoke a cigarette, and return to his seat. The result was the seven-minute rule. Three months later, Shinmen stopped smoking.

    "When we look for new hires, we don't accept them unless they stop smoking in the summer the year before they start working for us," says Tatsuo Suzuki, a manager at the company. Additionally, Acroquest instituted a no-smoking rule when employees have meals with each other, and if a phone call comes in for an employee while they're on a smoking break, they are fined 1,000 yen.

    Over 30 percent of employees were smokers when the company began instituting its smoking policies in 2000. Now the company has no smokers. The company adheres to the belief that the exchange of information among employees should take place daily in the office, not in a smoking room. And as for the stress-relieving effects of smoking, the company tries to prevent stress by making the workplace environment comfortable. Since employees are no longer leaving their desks for smoking breaks, work efficiency has risen.

    Suzuki also says that there's been an unexpected benefit resulting from the company's anti-smoking rules: it has attracted highly capable workers. Looking back on the process that it took to decide and implement the rules, Suzuki says, "All our staff engaged in discussion on how we could make the company better, and even the smokers agreed to the rules. If the decisions had been made by just some of our staff, we wouldn't have gotten the same result."

    Fuji Plan, a real estate investment company based in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward, also has taken unique steps. It set up a "smokebusters committee" last August to help employees who smoke kick the habit without causing too much stress.

    The company has distributed cards -- not unlike loyalty cards issued by businesses -- to its employees. Fuji Plan declared Tuesdays nonsmoking days, and if employees are able to go a full Tuesday without smoking, they receive a stamp on their card. Ten stamps entitle the cardholder to a product that helps them quit smoking, and 30 stamps gives the cardholder an opportunity to dine with the members of the smokebusters committee. In addition, the company uses aromatherapy goods in the office that make tobacco taste bad, and holds yoga classes that are said to help people quit smoking.

    "Smokers understand that smoking is bad for their health, so it's just a matter of whether they have the will to quit or not," says Mika Kawada, a member of the smokebusters committee. "Instead of trying to force people to quit, we came up with measures that respect employees' autonomy."

    Meanwhile, company director Yoshitada Shinkawa says, "We give stamp cards to our visitors, too, which can serve as a conversation starter. Of our 13 employees, five smoked. Three of them have now quit."

    Major pharmaceutical company Pfizer Japan Inc., headquartered in Tokyo's Shibuya Ward, has made booklets for companies trying to figure out how to encourage employees to stop smoking, and holds corporate seminars in Tokyo, the Kansai region, and Nagoya. It also has a section on its website featuring recommended anti-smoking measures in the workplace, with legal commentary by attorneys and information on companies that have taken the lead to curb smoking among its employees.

    "In Japan, there's the sense that smoking is an issue of etiquette, but it's more a health issue," a Pfizer representative says. "Non-smokers in Japan have less of an interest in the issue of secondhand smoke than in Europe and the U.S., which may be a reason why implementation of measures to limit or eliminate smoking has been slow to progress."

    With 6 percent of employees at Pfizer Japan still smoking, the company has released a "zero smokers final declaration," in which it states its aim to have no smokers among its ranks by 2020. The declaration is printed on badges that visitors wear when they enter the company premises, indicating the seriousness with which the company is working toward this goal.

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