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Editorial: Japan needs effort to avoid health damage from passive smoking

A bill to revise the Health Promotion Act, which places stronger restrictions on smoking to prevent health hazards caused by passive smoking, was passed into law by the Diet on July 18.

For the first time in Japan, the legislation bans smoking inside buildings where many people gather, with punishments against violators. The government should enforce the new law strictly and try to plug any loophole that surfaces, recognizing the major health damage secondhand smoke causes.

Under the revised law, indoor smoking is prohibited in principle at hospitals, schools, government offices and day care centers, although smoking inside rooms that can completely contain smoke are allowed. People who smoke at banned locations will be fined up to 300,000 yen, while the maximum penalty for facility managers who fail to abide by the law is 500,000 yen.

There are some "exceptions" to the smoking ban, however. Existing eateries and drinking establishments, which were originally covered by the draft prohibition bill, are exempt if their capital does not exceed 50 million yen and their floor space for customers is 100 square meters or less -- and signs saying "smoking allowed" are posted on the storefront. The watered-down rules reflect strong views from the food service industry and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

Such exempted establishments constitute 55 percent of the total. There is no denying that the new restrictions are lax, as applying them to all facilities including small ones would be difficult.

There is a need for renewed efforts to improve public awareness of the risks associated with passive smoking, which is estimated to kill 15,000 people every year through lung cancer, heart attacks or strokes. Damage to infants is serious too, including sudden deaths.

The regulations introduced by the state cover the bare minimum. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government has introduced its own ordinance banning smoking at restaurants and bars without offering exemptions based on floor space. This means 84 percent of such facilities face a smoking ban. Similar ordinances exist in other municipalities.

The Constitution allows local public entities to "enact their own regulations within law." When restrictions reflecting the reality on the ground are needed, it is generally accepted that local governments can enact ordinances setting tougher standards than national laws. There already exist many ordinances with provisions extending beyond frameworks approved by the Diet.

Tokyo, which will host the Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2020, is required to organize a "tobacco-free Games." With its particularly large number of eating and drinking establishments, the metropolitan government must take special measures to fight smoking. Efforts to protect the health of residents by local governments should be promoted.

Restrictions are not enough. More customers and local residents should approve and support voluntary tobacco control programs by restaurants and bars. Each and every member of the public must share an awareness of the importance of stopping passive smoking.

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