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National, Tokyo gov'ts split on indoor vaping ahead of 2020 Games

IQOS, a heat-not-burn tobacco product, in which a "heat stick" stuffed with processed tobacco leaves is inserted into a black rechargeable holder. Users inhale vapor through the heat stick. (Mainichi)

The national government and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government are at odds on how to treat heat-not-burn tobacco (HNB) products as they consider countermeasures against secondhand "smoke" inhalation ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.

HNB products, in which users inhale vapor instead of smoke, are placed in the same category as paper-wrapped cigarettes under the Tobacco Business Act. Because of this, both HNB products and paper-wrapped cigarettes were subject to the original draft revision of the Health Promotion Act that the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare (MHLW) released in March.

The health ministry has said that it would consider excluding HNB products from legal regulation by enforcing a government ordinance, but it takes the position that because HNB vapor includes nicotine and other toxic substances, such products need to be subject to regulation unless their vapor is scientifically proven to be harmless. It is likely that HNB products will be treated in the same way in the draft revision of the Health Promotion Act set to be submitted to the regular session of the Diet next year.

Tokyo is aiming to establish its own ordinance on tobacco-related products, and its draft ordinance released in September explicitly stated that HNB products would be subject to regulation. However, of the approximately 17,000 comments received from the public about the ordinance, some 2,000 called for HNB products to be excluded from regulation. A Tokyo government official has since expressed a more toned down stand than in September, saying, "We are still undecided whether to rule out" HNB products from restrictions.

Should the effects of HNB products' second-hand "smoke" be a consideration in making a final decision? Philip Morris Japan, which sells IQOS, a HNB product that accounts for the largest domestic share of HNB goods, claims that IQOS reduces, on average, about 90 percent of toxic substances. Cigarette-manufacturing giant Japan Tobacco (JT) also says that "the vapor (from HNB products) does not affect the indoor environment, and their risks should not be discussed in the same breath as those of paper-wrapped cigarettes."

The Japanese Respiratory Society, in response, released a comment in October saying that as long as there was a possibility that HNB products have a negative impact on health, the use of such products was not recommended. Hiroshi Yamato, a professor at the University of Occupational and Environmental Health, Japan says, "It is a rule of public health to regulate something when in doubt, and unless there is proof that it is harmless."

A 38-year-old man who switched from paper-wrapped cigarettes to a HNB product about six months ago says, "I'd like to know how much of an effect this (HNB product) has on my health and on those around me." Meanwhile, a 47-year-old woman in the midst of child-rearing says, "Those who use (HNB products) seem to think they pose no harm to those around them, but as a parent, I am deeply concerned."

Dining establishments have dealt with changing times and attitudes in a variety of ways. Zenkoku seikatsu eisei dogyo kumiai chuokai (All-Japan central council for environmental health trade organizations) is requesting that HNB products not be regulated until there is scientific confirmation that they are harmful, and the council's secretariat wants each establishment to be able to decide for themselves what measures they will take against HNB products.

Meanwhile, a public relations official for the operating company of the chain restaurant Royal Host, which banned all tobacco products including HNB products in 2013, points out, "Even if it's a HNB product, to others, it looks like smoking."

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