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Health Ministry smoking room draft policy 'loophole' full of unclear divisions

(Mainichi)

TOKYO -- Cancer patients, physicians and others are criticizing the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare after relevant draft Cabinet and ministry orders approved turning the entire second or higher floor of a restaurant or other establishment into a smoking room, calling it a loophole.

The prohibition in principle of smoking indoors in public places will begin from the 2020 fiscal year, and the health ministry released the plans based on the revised Health Promotion Act in December.

The idea to allow smoking on upper floors is based on the logic that smoke floats upward, and thus putting the smoking room floor above the non-smoking floor should logically prevent exposure to second-hand smoke. But that point was missing from debate on the subject during the lawmaking process.

The restrictions on smoking in the revised Health Promotion Act stipulate that complete indoor smoking bans will go into effect this July at schools, hospitals, administrative buildings and other facilities where there is a high necessity, followed by full application to all public spaces in April 2020.

If restaurants, bars and other related businesses equip their shops with sealed smoking rooms, then smoking any type of tobacco will be allowed only in those locations. To prevent smoke from leaking out of the installations, a ministry draft order defines a standard that "a wind speed of 0.2 meters per second or higher should be maintained flowing toward the smoking room."

On the other hand, for multi-level establishments, the ministry allowed for effectively making the entire second floor or higher into a smoking space without any such barriers that seal it off from the rest of the shop.

The consumption of food and drinks is allowed in areas designated for the use of heat-not-burn electrically heated tobacco only. Under the draft orders, izakaya bars, pachinko parlors and other such businesses could bring in smoking customers by designating their second and upper floor areas as "heated tobacco only floors" and offering food and drinks.

In response to the drafts, Japan Society for Tobacco Control Director Manabu Sakuta said, "They are trying to guide smokers to heated tobacco products rather than to quit. Even though it is a law that is supposed to regulate exposure to second-hand smoke, they have left a loophole allowing for smoking wherever."

In addition, there are parts of the draft rules that are unclear, such as the definition of "existing establishments," which will fall outside the scope of the smoking restrictions; whether the operator or the shop manager would shoulder fines for breaking the rules; and to what extent terrace seating is considered outdoors. These and other items will be answered at a later time in a question and answer booklet to be prepared for the public, the ministry said.

It appears that there will be several hundred items to be addressed, and there is a possibility that the regulations may be strengthened or weakened by the interpretations of the rules by the respective public health center, which will be tasked with the clerical work surrounding the measures.

"The revisions make everything extremely complicated by treating things such as regular cigarettes and electronically heated tobacco and existing and new establishments differently," said Japan Lung Cancer Alliance Director Kazuo Hasegawa. "We should strengthen measures to prevent mistaken exposure to second-hand smoke, and surveys and other such examinations of the health effects of heat-not-burn tobacco called for by the Diet's additional resolution should be carried out swiftly."

The draft Cabinet and ministry orders will be available for public comment until Jan. 19, and opinions will be accepted through websites such as the central government's "e-Gov" page.

"We are advancing countermeasures (against second-hand smoking) by also regulating heated tobacco products, for which there is still little clear scientific evidence of ill health effects," said a health ministry official in charge of the matter. "We will sincerely consider the opinions, and take the necessary actions."

(Japanese original by Masahiro Sakai, Medical Welfare News Department)

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