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Health ministry proposes laxer indoor smoking rules, but with a catch

(Mainichi, file)

The government is considering new anti-passive smoking rules that would allow people to light up in restaurants and bars with floor areas of 150 square meters and under.

The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare's previous indoor smoking regulation proposal had set the floor area limit at 30 square meters, and said smoking would only be allowed at drinking establishments such as bars of that size. While the latest iteration of the plan would permit establishments five times that size to allow smoking, it is also likely to ban smoking entirely in eateries that open after the regulations are implemented, as well as in bars and restaurants operated by large companies.

After coordinating with the ruling parties, the ministry is aiming to pass the necessary revisions to the Health Promotion Act during next year's regular Diet session, for full implementation by the 2020 Tokyo Games.

Under the ministry's proposal, in principle lighting up would be banned in eating and drinking establishments except in dedicated smoking rooms. However, smoking would be permitted in places with total floor areas of 150 square meters and under, and 100 square meters or less for customer seating, at the operator's discretion. Nevertheless, the more permissive rules would only apply to establishments already in business when the law went into effect, and then only to those operated by individuals and small to medium companies, not chains. While the floor area limit is listed as a "temporary measure," the plan does not specify when it will be re-examined.

Furthermore, to prevent second-hand smoke from damaging the health of minors, the proposed rules will forbid people under 20 -- both customers and employees -- from entering smoking rooms. Those smoking heat-not-burn tobacco cigarettes will be required to use the dedicated smoking spaces at least initially, as the products have been confirmed to cause health damage.

The government building housing the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare is seen in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward. (Mainichi)

The health ministry plans to implement smoking bans for hospitals, schools and other public facilities by the opening of the 2019 Rugby World Cup, with the new regulations on restaurants and bars to go into full force by April 2020. Under the newest proposal, the World Health Organization would raise Japan's passive smoking countermeasure rating from four -- the worst possible score -- to three, though this would also have been the case under the previous proposed rules.

The government and ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)-Komeito coalition had intended to pass new anti-smoking regulations into law during the previous regular Diet session, but some LDP members opposed the plan over worries including that the rules "could put eating and drinking establishments out of business." The LDP members countered the ministry plan for a 30-square-meter floor space maximum to allow smoking with a 150-square-meter plan. The ministry could not ultimately submit a bill during the session.

The proposal for the laxer smoking regulation was adopted after stewardship of the legislation passed from former health minister Yasuhisa Shiozaki to Katsunobu Kato, who assumed the portfolio in the last Cabinet shuffle. However, the LDP is sharply divided between those demanding stricter smoking rules and lawmakers who favor more relaxed regulations, and fine-tuning the legislation may be difficult. Meanwhile, the newest proposal looks likely to draw the ire of patients' organizations and other groups.

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