What will make Japan quit smoking?

For a health-conscious and hygienic society, Japan has a shocking number of people who smoke.

According to an annual survey conducted by Japan Tobacco and published on Nippon.com, the percentage of male and female smokers in 2017 was, respectively, 28.2% and 9.0%.

The report also showed that people aged over thirty are more likely to smoke than younger people.

I quit

I gave up smoking in my forties. I wish other people would join me in quitting and enjoy, like me, a revival in their health and a precious sense of freedom.

I am also aware that most Japanese women don’t wish their partners to smoke, so surely it stresses them when their boyfriends or husbands come home stinking of nicotine?

However before I quit, I was rather fond of Japan’s permissive attitude and cheap cigarettes. They remain cheap – a packet of twenty costs around 500 yen (£3.73 GBP $4.61 USD) – about a third of the price in Britain.

Vulnerable to Covid-19

In the UK, the government’s chief medical adviser, Prof Chris Whitty, has said now would be a “very good moment” for people to quit smoking because it leads to “an additional vulnerability” in terms of coronavirus.

The BBC claims that experts in China, where the virus originated, “found that less fit people with medical conditions were five times more likely to have a worse outcome from Covid-19; and smokers three times more likely to have this result.” The theory is that people whose lungs have been damaged by smoking are more likely to succumb to pneumonia.

With these warnings in mind, I was pleased to hear that Japan is bringing in new anti-smoking laws this week. They are pretty limited in scope, though. Although you can’t now light up in restaurant chains, like Starbucks and McDonalds, the laws are only going to be enforced in Tokyo and not in the rest of the country.

Even in Tokyo, many small establishments are exempt, which means groups of men can still head off to izakayas and bars after work and smoke until closing time.

Villainous business

My view is that Japan Tobacco is the villain here. It is a staggeringly rich company: its website shows it made a profit of more than 500 billion JPY last year. This gives it great sway over the government, which still owns 33 percent of the business. Its products provide substantial tax revenue.

Reuters observes that it took two years for the partial smoking ban to come into effect, highlighting the hurdles facing anti-smoking activists in dealing with Japan Tobacco.

“This year’s law is still not sufficient,” politician and anti-smoking campaigner Shigefumi Matsuzawa told Reuters. “We had to set many compromises in order for it to pass, so there are several loopholes.”

Threat to life

The partial ban was part of Tokyo’s preparations for the now-delayed 2020 Olympics, and it seems to have been designed to appease foreign visitors, rather than address a national problem. Yet activists say second-hand smoke kills around 15,000 people a year, many of them women and children.

The new laws on smoking take effect as Japan is battling a coronavirus outbreak that has so far infected more than 2,000 people and killed 59.

Clearly, I support the measures taken to help prevent the further spread of the virus. But in terms of a danger to life, statistics suggest that smoking will kill many more people in Japan this year than the effects of Covid-19.

One Reply to “What will make Japan quit smoking?”

  1. Couldn’t agree more. It’s an anomaly that Japan Tobacco is regulated by the Ministry of Finance, which is more interested in the tax revenues than the health implications. (But it’s a two-edged sword as presumably tobacco-related illnesses like lung cancer end up costing the public purse a lot of money.) Perhaps another factor is that most Japanese politicians seem to smoke!

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