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Can Japan stub out its smoking habit?

With the clock ticking down to 2020 and the opening of the Tokyo Olympic Games, Japan is under pressure to comply with the IOC stipulation that all public spaces in the host city are smoking-free. Julian Ryall reports.

In three years, Tokyo will be hosting the 2020 Olympic Games and Paralympics, and Japan is slowing coming around to the idea that smoking in public places poses a health hazard to other people. Yet there is still a degree of resistance to the requirement of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that host cities organize health-conscious Games.

The Japanese government is due to put legislation to a vote in March that would outlaw smoking in or near public buildings - such as schools and hospitals - and is holding discussions with businesses to hear their concerns.

The strongest opposition to the proposed blanket ban on smoking in public places, not surprisingly, comes from companies that operate bars, restaurants and other entertainment facilities. At present, less than 10 percent of bars and restaurants have no-smoking policies and operators say they fear their businesses will not survive if they do not permit patrons to smoke.

Second-hand smoke

As many as 50 countries in the world have already introduced bans on smoking in public places, including bars, but existing legislation in Japan only requires operators to make efforts to stop second-hand smoke affecting others. In practice, that means that many establishments simply require smokers to sit at one end of the room and non-smokers at the other.

In the most recent study, conducted in May 2016, 29.7 percent of Japanese men and 9.7 percent of women smoke. The figure for men was below the 30 percent threshold for the first time since Japan Tobacco Inc. began conducting the survey in 1965, although the figure for women was up 0.1 percent.

Overall, the rate fell to a record 19.3 percent of the population, some 20.27 million people.

"It has been declining, but we appear to have hit something of a plateau and the rate of decline has fallen," said Kyoichi Miyazaki, secretary general of the Japan Society for Tobacco Control. "We had expected - and hoped for - more sustained and rapid decline."

According to Miyazaki, a number of factors are behind the enduring popularity of tobacco in Japan.

Price point

"Prices have barely risen in since 2010 and the cost of a pack of cigarettes is only around 430 Yuan [3.59 euros], so cost is not having any impact on consumers," Miyazaki told DW. "The smoking rate among young people is around double the national average, which we also see as a problem."

Arguably a bigger hurdle that needs to be overcome, he said, is the government's addiction to tax revenue from tobacco products.

"The government still owns around 30 percent of Japan Tobacco so they are keen to earn as much from the commodity as they can - and they have this attitude that smoking is less harmful than illegal drugs, so it's okay to sell," he added.

And while the Ministry of Finance is raking in tax windfalls, the health ministry is attempting to encourage smokers to kick the habit so it does not have to spend as much money on treating people with diseases associated with smoking.

"The government is closing its eyes to this imbalance - and the Ministry of Finance is winning the battle because it hands out the money to the other ministries," Miyazaki said.

There have been, however, some notable successes down the years, Miyazaki agrees. The local authority in Tokyo's Chuo Ward in 2002 banned smoking on the street and has wardens patrolling to make sure that the ban is enforced.

'Smokers' greenhouses'

Elsewhere, local governments have erected cubicles where smokers can huddle and their emissions do not escape into the surrounding environment. Miyazaki dismissively describes them as "smokers' greenhouses."

But he is very hopeful that the legislation that will be debated in March will be the turning point for Japanese society.

"The government has to pass this law on smoking in restaurants and bars or they fall short of the IOC's requirements on host cities," he said with a shrug. "Those businesses are just going to have to find a way to manage."

And there are bar and restaurant operators who say the no-smoking model can work.

"We underwent a complete refurbishment last year, and I took that opportunity to make the upper floor of the restaurant non-smoking and downstairs for smokers," said Andy Lunt, owner of the Shin Hinomoto izakaya in Tokyo's Yurakucho district.

"And the reaction has been very favorable - so favorable, in fact, that it caught me by surprise," he added. "We're an izakaya, so people traditionally came here to eat, to drink and to smoke. I wondered if this was a good move, but 99 percent of our customers have been very supportive.

"And I have also found that people in the non-smoking area are eating more," he said. "They are finding that they are in an environment where they enjoy their meals more and I'm just glad that we are ahead of this particular curve."

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