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Drastic relaxation of restrictions proposed for indoor smoking sparks criticism

(Mainichi, file)

The extreme relaxation of a planned indoor smoking ban unveiled by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry on Jan. 30 represents a step backward in passive smoking countermeasures.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government, which had aspired to introduce stricter restrictions on smoking ahead of the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics, toned down its pledge. "We need to keep consistency between our policy and the national government's policy," an official said.

Even though the ministry has not yet worked out detailed measures to prevent passive smoking, the ministry's plan has drawn fire from experts as well as organizations representing patients with cigarette-induced diseases, who are demanding an indoor smoking ban as strict as those in other industrialized countries.

The ministry was unable to submit a bill on the prevention of second-hand smoking to the Diet last year after failing to coordinate views with ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) legislators. However, the ministry managed to release a new draft bill largely because Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Yasuhisa Shiozaki stepped down when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reshuffled his Cabinet in August last year.

Shiozaki stuck to his proposal to minimize the scope of establishments exempt from restrictions on indoor smoking. However, the then health minister's plan drew stiff opposition from LDP legislators backed by the food service and cigarette industries. The ministry and LDP legislators failed to close the gap in their positions on the issue.

Considering the political schedule leading up to the Olympics and Paralympics, Katsunobu Kato, who succeeded Shiozaki as health minister, needed to swiftly draw up a bill acceptable to LDP legislators.

Kato began modifying the anti-passive smoking bill immediately after assuming his new post. However, he struggled to work out effective restrictions on smoking while ensuring that restaurants and bars could continue to operate.

Under Kato's leadership, the health ministry came up with the idea of using establishments' sales figures and other data, instead of floor space as criteria for the implementation of an indoor smoking ban. However, the ministry abandoned the idea after learning that it would be difficult for local governments to get an idea of the sales figures of restaurants and bars.

The ministry then considered reviving a plan that the LDP worked out in May last year to exempt establishments whose floor space is 150 square meters or less (100 square meters for space dedicated to customers and 50 square meters for the kitchen) from restrictions.

However, the revival of the LDP proposal could give the public the impression that the health ministry was taking a major step back from Shiozaki's insistence that only establishments whose floor space is 30 square meters or less be exempted from such restrictions. To avoid that, the ministry added a provision to the proposed bill that newly opened restaurants and bars as well as major franchise establishments would not be exempted from restrictions even if their floor space meets the criteria.

"We worked out the draft after seriously considering how to prevent the public from thinking that we accepted the LDP plan without resistance," a senior ministry official said. "By applying the brakes, the number of restaurants and bars where smoking is allowed should decrease little by little in the future."

It is easier for LDP legislators to support the latest bill than the one proposed last year.

Gaku Hashimoto, head of the LDP's Health, Labor and Welfare Division, told a meeting of senior members of the group, "Last year, I explained the ministry's idea to the party as state minister for health (the second-in-command in the ministry), but failed to win support. It's important to make progress on the proposed countermeasures during the ongoing Diet session."

However, the number of restaurants and bars that will be required to enforce a smoking ban is certain to be lower under the latest proposal than under last year's plan. According to the standard of commitment to preventing passive smoking set by the World Health Organization, Japan would only rise from the lowest level of 4 to 3 even if the new bill were to come into force.

Hiroshi Yamato, professor at the University of Occupational and Environmental Health, Japan, criticized the newly proposed measure. "If establishments with floor space of 150 square meters or less were to be exempted from restrictions, the law should be called a bottomless bucket rather than a law full of loopholes," he said.

Kazuo Hasegawa, head of the Japan Lung Cancer Alliance representing lung cancer patients, also pointed out that the ministry was taking a weaker stance toward curbing passive smoking, essentially making the "countermeasure" into a mere facade.

"Under the proposal, indoor smoking would be permitted in principle. It would be more fitting to state that indoor smoking is prohibited at some establishments as an exception," he sarcastically said.

The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry is aiming to submit a bill on anti-passive smoking measures to the Diet in early March and make sure that the bill is passed into law by the end of the current Diet session. Still, numerous challenges remain unaddressed.

For example, it remains unclear whether establishments whose operators are replaced but retain their old names would be subject to an indoor smoking ban. Such issues could throw debate on the bill into chaos.

Under the ministry's plan, the timing of making smaller establishments fully subject to an indoor smoking ban would be provided for by law, instead of being set at a maximum of five years as the LDP proposed last year. Thus it remains to be seen to what extent restrictions on second-hand smoking will be enforced by the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.

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