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Lax indoor smoking rules applied to top ranking ministry officials: Mainichi study

(Mainichi)

Smoking is allowed in 10 out of 23 offices of Cabinet ministers depending on the minister's own discretion, a Mainichi Shimbun survey has shown, a move which runs counter to the government's efforts on anti-secondhand smoke measures ahead of the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.

National Personnel Authority guidelines require as much smoke-free space as possible inside government buildings, but the latest finding suggests that lax rules are being applied to those in special posts such as ministers, senior vice ministers and parliamentary secretaries.

There are 20 Cabinet ministers in the Cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and a total of 23 offices in 14 buildings, including the prime minister's office, are allocated to them. Representatives of each ministry and agency told the Mainichi Shimbun that six ministers who have their own offices at the Cabinet Office building (a total of seven rooms as Cabinet minister Katsunobu Kato is given two offices), as well as the finance minister, economy minister and chairman of the National Public Safety Commission have authority to decide whether people can smoke in their rooms. The same rule applies to the offices of senior vice ministers and parliamentary secretaries. No ministry or agency disclosed whether ministers actually smoke inside their offices.

Meanwhile, smoking is not permitted inside offices of ministers at other ministries and agencies, as it is not allowed in other regular rooms in their buildings. A welfare department official of the land ministry said, "While one of our three political executives (minister, senior vice minister and parliamentary secretary) is a smoker, they smoke inside a common-use smoking space (inside the building)." The Foreign Ministry set up a smoking room next to the minister's office in the fall of 2013, but says the room is not being used today.

The National Personnel Authority in 2003 established guidelines regarding smoking inside government buildings after the Health Promotion Act was revised in the same year to stipulate measures against secondhand smoke in public spaces. The guidelines serve as the basis for anti-secondhand smoke at government offices. The basic policy of the guidelines states that "concrete measures to secure the separation of smoking and non-smoking areas are at least required inside government buildings" and that ministries are encouraged to "make efforts as much as possible toward a total indoor smoking ban."

Since the National Personnel Authority is regarded as an organization that manages human resources among bureaucrats in charge of clerical tasks, however, ministries' top ranking executives selected from among legislators are not the intended target under the guidelines. The personnel authority says not banning smoking in ministers' offices does not violate the guidelines.

In the meantime, under the draft revision of the Health Promotion Act, which the health ministry hopes will be passed by the end of the current Diet session, indoor smoking would be completely banned at public office buildings, including ministers' rooms, and smoking rooms would only be allowed to be set up outdoors. The only ministries that currently meet these conditions are health and environment ministries housed in the same building. If the revision is passed, swift action will be required from almost all government organizations.

Manabu Sakuta, a neurologist and the chairman of the Japan Society for Tobacco Control, slammed the lax rules applied to top ranking ministry officials, saying that they are the ones who need to take the initiative to prevent secondhand smoke. Sakuta added, "It's not just their problem, but the ministry staff who enter their rooms are exposed to secondhand smoke. The government as a whole needs to show its efforts toward a smoke-free Olympics."

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