Can Japan be Smoke Free by 2020? Don’t Hold Your Breath (Although You May Still Want To)

cigarettes-in-ashtray

2020 is such a round number, intuitively connected to 20:20 vision, and thus an easy deadline for lofty organizational and national goals, at least for another year at most.

One such goal is the Health Ministry of Japan’s drive to ban smoking in Japan, in time before the spotlight is cast on Tokyo for the 2020 Olympics. Clearly, evidence regarding the health effects of smoking, as well as effects on non-smokers via second-hand smoke is too compelling today to ignore.

And since the Olympics have an agenda that bidding countries need to sign on to, there will be a strong attempt for Japan to honor the Tobacco Free Initiative co-sponsored by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the World Health Organization (WHO). Their goal is to keep non-smokers away from the dangers of second-hand smoke, and even get all smokers to quit.

But ensuring all Olympic venues are tobacco free, which also means tobacco-promotion free, is a challenge. It’s an Olympian challenge.

First, Asia is still a smoker’s paradise, sales booming in places like China and Indonesia. And while smoking has dropped significantly in Japan (for men from 80% in the 1960s to about 30% today), there is significant resistance to the banning of smoking in public places.

According to this Japan Times article, the Health Ministry is recommending that all restaurants, bars and clubs either ban smoking or install special enclosed areas for smokers, at the risk of heavy fines. Currently, the law only asks businesses to make efforts while imposing no penalties for non-compliance, according to this article. Apparently those ideas are getting significant push back from the restaurant industry, particularly the smaller businesses. Thus the Health Ministry is working on compromises that will still allow smoking for places that are 30 square meters in size or less, as long as they clearly explain that in signage and properly ventilate.

In other words, short-term revenue and the survival of small business is more important than the long-term health implications of people who do not smoke.

That may sound harsh to the ears of health idealists around the world, but the truth of the matter is, the IOC and WHO have had challenges getting comprehensive compliance to their Smoke Free Initiative.

 

cigarettes-beijing-olympics
FreakingNews.com

 

In this recent study of the impact of the Tobacco Free Policy, entitled “Smoke Rings: Towards a Comprehensive Tobacco Free Policy for the Olympic Games“, it appears that reaching the goals of this policy are difficult.

For example, the goal of keeping all Olympic venues smoke free has been labeled “unrealistic and unreasonable.” Apparently at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games, according to the study, foreign visitor unused to the strictness of these measures led the Vancouver Olympic Committee to ease up on the policy.

Smoking areas were subsequently permitted on all Olympic sites including the athletes village and sporting venues.

It was a challenge to implement that ban at the 2012 London Olympics as well.

As well as being unaware of the IOC policy, officials found LOCOG staff believed tobacco use was a “personal choice” and thus unsupportive of strong tobacco control. The election of a coalition government in the UK in 2010, and disbanding of the London Regional Tobacco Control Team amid public sector cuts, further weakened commitment. The London games were eventually designated as smoke-free with “discrete smoking areas”.

The policy states that tobacco sponsorship related to the Olympics is not allowed. And yet, that has proven difficult to police, particularly in Asia, according to the study.

It is perhaps in Asia that tobacco sponsorship of Olympic athletes and teams has been most active. When two Filipino athletes won medals at the 1988 Seoul Summer Games, they were rewarded prize money by the Philippines’ Tobacco Fortune Corp. In 1991, the Sports Authority of Thailand and Thai National Olympic Committee pressed the government to lift restrictions on tobacco sponsorship. While acknowledging that it was “illegal for us to be involved” in sponsorship, BAT subsidiary Singapore Tobacco Company (STC) described its use of “a primary sponsor as a cover” to channel funding, admitting “it needs careful handling… The politics are complex–but things are possible”.

At the 1964 Olympics, Japan was tobacco heaven, and the marketing of cigarettes at the 1964 Olympics may be contributing to the current peak in lung cancer deaths over the past two decades, as I wrote about here. But to be honest, I am a non-smoker, and the attitude towards smoking has changed, and the number of smokers in public areas has decreased since the time I first arrived in 1986.

I remember in the 1980s the ball-like metal ashtrays on the train platforms of the Yamanote Line in the mornings, filled with cigarette butts, spewing poison into the air like the Gates of Hell. Today, those are long gone.

The ban may not be total by 2020. But fewer people will be smoking in public. Progress is definitely being made.