Japan’s 'polite' tobacco war rages on

TOKYO —

When I first came to Japan, I had been forewarned—everybody smokes. In fact, it’s a smoker’s paradise, I was told. The Japanese were known as being among the heaviest smokers in the world, and not surprisingly, the Japanese government owns a controlling share of Japan Tobacco, the world’s third largest cigarette company.

Until recently, cigarette label notices most cynically represented the conflict of interest. “Try not to smoke too much,” the labels gently read, adding, “there’s a risk it might damage your health.” And: “Be sure to observe smokers’ etiquette.”

This was at a time when more Japanese people smoked than those who didn’t. Last week, however, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare announced that the percentage of people smoking has now fallen below 20%, the lowest since records began. Furthermore, the ministry says its goal is to cut it even further to 12.2% within 10 years.

Looking back to the good old days of Japan as a “smoker society,” I have to admit the love affair always seemed a bit strange to me.

Take, for example, the Japanese obsession with light and “mild” cigarettes. MILD SEVEN, thanks in part to the Japanese consumer, is the third largest cigarette brand in the world.

Brands such as it and others were developed in the 1970s to capitalize on consumer concerns about the health hazards of smoking, offering low-tar cigarettes as a safer alternative. For years, consumers believed that low tar and nicotine cigarettes with charcoal filters made smoking safer.

Many Japanese people also have a peculiar habit of lighting cigarettes, taking only one of two puffs, extinguishing them, and going through entire packs of cigarettes in that manner.

But then something happened to make most people think twice about the myth of “safer smoking.”

The Japanese, for years, have lived in terminal fear of stomach cancer, which has long been among the leading killer diseases in Japan. Cancer, in general, is the largest killer in Japan—1 in 3 people die of it. Suddenly, a few years ago it was announced that lung cancer had overtaken stomach cancer and has since skyrocketed for men.

The statistics are quite sobering. According to the WHO, 1 in 9 deaths in Japan are smoking related. Smoking is also attributed to 23% of all male cancer deaths in Japan and 13% of all female cancer deaths, in addition to being a contributing factor to 23% of all male deaths from cardiovascular disease and 5% for women. More than 5% of all health care expenditures can also be attributed to smoking related diseases.

And so began the battle.

Japan was quick to sign on to WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (though has yet to fully implement it). Wards and private companies started cracking down on public smoking.

In October 2010, Japan also imposed a staggering 40% revenue tax on tobacco products, just at a time when the “kozukai” (pocket money) of the Japanese salary man is lower than ever. If the health ministry has its way, the cost will be almost double in about a decade.

Japan Tobacco has struggled not to be the bad guy. Forced to put unsightly warnings on its packs, and limited in advertising options, Japan Tobaccio began a quirky manners campaign with green, bilingual eco-friendly looking posters on the trains with the stick figures saying things such as “It’s scary to see a flaming object thrown from a car window,” and “My cigarettes smell good. Other people’s smell bad.”

It’s almost as if to say, “If people would just be politer, the problem would go away. What’s everybody so worried about anyway?”

But the problem goes far deeper.

Back in 1985, the company shifted from a state monopoly to a private company with the government holding a 50.01% share as part of a series of government reforms to shrink a bloated bureaucracy.

The effectiveness of the tax hike of 2010, however, rattled JT’s domestic market.
Last year, it announced that it wanted full privatization and was even willing to consider buying out the government’s remaining shares.

Hoping to generate a quick 24 billion yen for post-quake reconstruction, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda drew up a multi-stage plan, but the opposition LDP and their coalition partner New Komeito blocked it under objection from Japanese farmers who had already lost half of their workforce over the past decade, unwilling to sell more than 33% of its shares. They worried that if Japan Tobacco sets its sights on the global market, the loss of government protection would mean shipment of their remaining 6,000 farming jobs abroad.

The battle continues…

As for quitting, Japanese national health care covers medication to aid smoking cessation. Varenicline is available with a prescription in addition to a wide variety of over-the-counter nicotine replacement therapies. In 1999, Novartis introduced nicotine patches in Japan, recording 1 billion yen in sales in the first year alone. Once the patches went OTC in 2008, sales almost immediately jumped 2.5 fold. Soon other companies such as Taisho and Takeda began jumping in too.

There’s one company you can rule out seeing included in the prominent displays at your local pharmacy, however—Torii Pharmaceuticals.

In the wake of privatization back in 1985, Japan Tobacco launched a corporate diversification program, and by 1998, had taken over the 130-year-old pharmaceutical company. Torii markets a number of medications to treat HIV, renal disease, diabetes and other, presumably, non-smoking related ailments.

Meanwhile, if you’re planning to quit smoking and decide to see your doctor, don’t be too surprised if he comes into the room puffing away on his own MILD SEVEN – almost 1 in 3 Japanese male doctors are smokers themselves.

Likewise, consider the case of a Japanese physician at Ida hospital in Kawasaki, a number of years ago. He pointed out that the problem of Japan’s growing elderly population could easily be solved if they just simply smoked themselves to death, saving the public a whopping load of money on health care expenses. Severely reprimanded, he was quick to apologize.

Author Infomation

Eddie Landsberg
Eddie Landsberg
Eddie Landsberg is a writer, musician and reviewer who's lived and taught in Japan for 17 years. He presents stories and interviews on a wide range of topics related to changing Japanese society. He's recorded three internationally distributed CDs as a Hammond organist. Among his hobbies shogi, dog training and collecting R&B.
Website: https://www.facebook.com/eddie.landsberg1
  • 5

    6wings

    "kazukai" = "kozukai"

    When the king of Bhutan came to visit Japan I did some research about his country (i.e. looked at the Wikipedia page;) and learned Bhutan is the first country in the world to have banned the sale of tobacco. Happiness rates increased by 8.96% (totally made-up figure).

    It will never happen but I'd love to see tobacco sale banned. Disgusting bloody habit.

  • 0

    ultradork

    At least take a stand and ban it indoors - why should restaurant & bar patrons and especially the staff be subject to some people's filthy habit? Even Hong Kong did it. I hate seeing all those JT ads on TV acting like they are so great picking up gomi or using portable ashtrays, pffft. Besides doctors, so many teachers smoke here, too. Great examples for the precious snowflakes.

  • 2

    tmarie

    Japan Tobacco has struggled not to be the bad guy. They ARE the bad guy. Them and the government. They can dress it up as much as they want but they are the ones the push these products. I am disgusted that they appear on TV during sports events and the like. I am disgusted that the government still has its dirty paws in with them - though I guess they see money. I see more money needing to be spent on health care. It costs US, the taxpayers, because the government won't clamp down.

    And why the need to be "polite"? Oh right, because many of the ossans in the government are heavy smokers and want their fix rather than stop the spread of an unhealthy habit. I wish this country would come to their senses and ban smoking in restaurants, cafes, bars... Getting better but still a very long way to go.

  • 1

    Patric Spohn

    Anyone has any number of how many billions of yen are being collected from taxation by the gov?

  • 0

    NetNinja

    It's a waste of life, time and money. Countless work hours have been lost to smokers who take breaks to smoke. Labor laws don't allow breaks here so I understand why they take those smoke breaks though. They might chain smoke 2 or 3 cigarettes to get a 15 minute break.

  • 0

    MaboDofuIsSpicy

    Many Japanese people also have a peculiar habit of lighting cigarettes, taking only one of two puffs, extinguishing them, and going through entire packs of cigarettes in that manner.

    This is what I did. But I inhaled cigars.

    Massive asthma attack for the first time in my life 6 years back got me to really quit. Thanks asthma.

  • 1

    napoleancomplex

    seems like such a conflict of interest if the government has such a huge stake in JT.. killing their own tax payers

  • 0

    GW

    jt = nippon gan!

    also DONT buy their drinks!

  • 0

    Ranger_Miffy2

    Great article this time, Eddie, and right on target, commentors.

    JT needs to keep diversifing so they can let go of the cancer stick income. Same with farmers. Come on, old fellas, grow something without the bad karma. J gov should be mortally ashamed of this devil's bargain.

    So, now that less than 20% smoke, can we end the tyranny of indoor smoking? SOON? How about TODAY???

  • 0

    gullevek

    Yeah, the Japan smoking "monopol" is falling. So many of my friends in the same age stopped smoking. Mostly couples who do it together. People older (35+) show no interest in smoking. At the local Nomiya we are in general 90+% smokers.

    For me as a smoker it is hard to agree, but I think restaurants should ban smoking. Bars and small Izakayas should not. I honestly think that would hurt the business a lot.

    But at some point in the future we will have destroyed smoking and move on to the next drug. Humans have used drugs since the dawn of time, removing one, does not mean we will be starting living the happy clean life some of the hardcore anti smokers want us to believe we would.

    @NetNinja

    I doubt that stopping smoking would increase the work output anywhere. You don't have to be a smoker to be slacking off. Actually as a non smoker, you can get away even better. Just sit at your desk all day long and pretend to work

  • 2

    Godan

    How ironic that you have one branch of government (MOF) trying to sell you cancer sticks and another (MOHW) trying to cure you after your sick? And the number of healthcare providers in Japan addicted to cigarettes is a shame, too.

    Reminds me of patient counseling in America. "Do you smoke?" "Yes? Oh here is some literature to help you quit. If you need any advice feel free to ask."

    In Japan, "Do you smoke?" "I see." And you move on to the next question.

  • 2

    Maria

    In Japan, "Do you smoke?" "I see." And you move on to the next question.

    I would have to disagree with this, Godan. I can't comment on your experience of health checks in Japan, but I have had "patient counseling" quite a few times, and after I told them I smoked I have always asked how many / how often I smoke per day; how long I've smoked; and have been presented with photos of cancer-ridden lungs. If the smoker doesn't want to quit, what's the doctor to do?

  • 0

    Patric Spohn

    So 80% (I don't believe it just yet) of the non-smokers, or 100% of the JT readers have no idea how much annual tax is being collected from those 20% horrible people, who all die of cancer some day and are such a burden to the so very healthy other 80%?

  • 2

    Godan

    @Maria - Apologies, I should have been clearer. I am referring to the patient counseling practice and exams that students go through to become a heath care provider in Japan/America -- not actual practitioners. Thanks for sharing your experience. I think you had a good doc.

  • 2

    Ranger_Miffy2

    gullvek, Pleased to see you recognize that smoking should be banned. I'm sorry, but it must be banned everywhere. Especially small places and izakaya. How I wish I could spend more time and money in them, but can not be cause of the clouds of cancer. Have mercy on the staff trapped in those places, too. You will be pleased to know that in other countries which completely banned indoor smoking, including food and drinking places, business WENT UP. Why? Because nonsmokers returned! And in Japan, that means 80% are nonsmokers and you just know know they wisely avoid these cancerous fishbowls.

    That's my take on it. Not alone by any means. It 's just logical.

  • -1

    Ranger_Miffy2

    Oh, and smoking is about to become polluted by radioactive tobacco grown by Fukushima farmers who can't change in time...tobacco happily bought up by JTobacco. Can it get worse?

  • -10

    j4p4nFTW

    I have the exact same right to smoke indoors as you do to NOT smoke outdoors. They are logical equivalents. We don't need a nanny state tell people where they can and cannot use their legally purchased products. Ans Japanese cigarettes are the most delicious!

  • 9

    Ben_Jackinoff

    A smoker's right to smoke ends at my right to breath.

  • 2

    sau133

    Why don't they make a start by banning the ludicrous adverts. Giant posters of beautiful women puffing away on a disgusting menthol..if that girl actually smoked 20 a day she would look NOTHING like that.

    In the UK all advertising of cigarettes is now banned. In addition each pack of tobacco carries a huge picture of a black lung, rotting teeth or the results of some hideous autopsy on a smoker along with facts about what smoking can do to you. I smoked when i was a teenager and these images are what made me stop.

  • 4

    Johannes Weber

    I have the exact same right to smoke indoors as you do to NOT smoke outdoors.

    They are not. Smoking is a passive event for non-smokers and an active event for smokers. Smokers force non-smokers to passively inhale their clouds. This is one of the few exceptions where the Japanese SUFFERING PASSIVE makes perfect sense.

    We don't need a nanny state tell people where they can and cannot use their legally purchased products.

    By the same reason, an American would be allowed to shoot down just anybody because she may legally buy a gun...?

    Everyone should be allowed to smoke at home and in designated smoking zones. However, health insurance shouldn't pay anything for smokers' lung cancers. It is a dangerous hobby like many others. If you get a health problem, then you should pay for it youself. In the same way as no life insurance should pay for people commiting voluntary suicide.

  • 0

    Guillaume Varès

    I have the exact same right to smoke indoors as you do to NOT smoke outdoors.

    The problem is that smoking is not only a nuisance, it is a health hazard. I fully respect your right to smoke, but I don't want to bear the health risks resulting from my passive exposure to your smoke.

    However, I don't believe this is the role of government to regulate the right to smoke indoor. The only restriction (if there is one to be) should be for public venues to state their smoking/non-smoking policy at the entrance and enforce it.

    Smoking vs non-smoking venues is a matter of public perceptions and pressure. It is the role of NGOs and concerned customers to pressure venues to implement a smoking ban or a real separation (wall/ air filtration with negative pressure) between smoking and non-smoking sections. Businesses are not stupid, they follow the trends and if a significant amount of their customers require non-smoking venues, they will catch up.

    Separating two areas of the same room is meaningless (it would be like having "peeing" and "non-peeing" sections in a swimming pool), so I understand the frustration of non-smokers (like me). More and more restaurants in Japan are becoming non-smoking, but for the others, the best option is to vote with your feet and avoid such venues.

  • 4

    Hunter Brumfield

    Ok, I have to bring back up that nefarious balcony smoker, since he's not yet been mentioned.

    We live either right beside or above him, not sure which. He is an example of a "private smoker" who is regularly wafting his noxious habit throughout this part of our apartment complex.

    By calculation, if I may loosely extrapolate, 20% of of the apartments have one male who stands out there with his own (wife's) balcony door closed, while we neighbors passively get the ass end of his smoky butt.

    So even in your own home you cannot escape the smoker, whose "right" to smoke is causing me to shut my windows and doors and turn on the air con, full well knowing it is still finding its way in through the vents, etc.

    And I suppose it's also his cigaret stubs and discarded packages we all get to step over at the entrances of the apartment and our shared subway entrance.

    Thanks a lot, neighbor!

  • -12

    John Putnam

    I will add my 2 cents to this, like it or not. All of you living in Japan now. Don't worry soon you will have Japan change to meet your standards of the western world and how things should be according to you. As the years have past I have seen so many things disappear from Japanese life because of western influences/thinking. Not saying that 2nd hand smoking is good or bad for people to breathe. Common sense used to be in America and it is in Japan. You don't like the smell of smoke, don't go near it. "it's like having a peeing section in a pool" don't use that pool if you think someone is peeing in it. "I can smell smoke from my balcony" Find a place to live that does not allow smoking at all in the entire building" Being a people watcher myself. Through the years, many, I have noticed that people complaining about smoking have their own bad habits of doing things to disturb the environment. But, let's not forget that you who are complaining about 2nd hand smoke are the perfect people with the perfect way life should be for all of us. All over the world.

  • 2

    Guillaume Varès

    @John Putnam

    I am not sure you read my message. My point was: venues should not be forced to become non-smoking (I believe in business property rights), but concerned customers (like me) should vote with their feet and avoid smoking venues. Customers also have the right to pressure businesses implement some of their wishes (not through government coercion). And please, don't bring everything back to "Western imperialism" vs "Japan as a victim of foreign influences". It has nothing to do with "standards of the western world" but with common sense.

  • -1

    herefornow

    How ironic that you have one branch of government (MOF) trying to sell you cancer sticks and another (MOHW) trying to cure you after your sick? And the number of healthcare providers in Japan addicted to cigarettes is a shame, too.

    Godan -- not at all. That is the typical way of Japan. Just look at the nulear regulatory ministry openly pushing nuclear energy and getting support from the power companies that they were supposed to be regulating via strict safety measures. The J-government, both the elected officials and the bureaucrats, have long been an arm of Japan Inc., so one ministry working hard to make more money for a particular insustry, like tobacco, despite the obvious risk it poses to the public, is not strange at all there.

  • 3

    kaminarioyaji

    the percentage of people smoking has now fallen below 20%

    If this is true, why is it that 90%+ of all restaurants/bars/cafes permit smoking in areas that are not separated? Why do the 80%+ of non-smokers have to suffer the repellent habit of a small minority?

    Finding a non-smoking eating/drinking establishment in Japan is like finding the proverbial needle in a haystack.

    The biggest joke is that many places will ask you if you want smoking/non-smoking, and even when you say non-smoking, you're still usually surrounded by smokers. I.e. the question "smoking or non-smoking?" basically means "do you want an ashtray?".

    Ridiculous.

  • 1

    kaminarioyaji

    I'm glad "polite" is in those speech marks - Polite is an adjective that is about as far removed from smokers in Japan as can possibly be. Never once has someone asked if I mind them sparking up whilst I am mid-meal. Funny how they stub out their fags when their meal arrives so they can enjoy it... Selfish doesn't even begin to cover it.

  • 2

    Alan

    In addition to poisoning the air and inflicting their toxic habit on everyone around them, smokers are responsible for the majority of fires. Historically the Japanese have had an intense phobia of fire because of the combustibility of their cities, so I'm surprised that they tolerate this filthy and dangerous habit. How many children have been burned to death in their own homes because their fathers smoked in bed or tossed a smouldering butt into waste basket? Smokers should be extinguished.

  • 0

    Alan

    "This was at a time when more Japanese people smoked than those who didn’t."

    I find this a bit surprising. When I first lived in Japan in the early seventies, I recall reading that only about one-third of Japanese smoked. While the majority of men smoked, few women and no children did. More young women seem to have taken up the habit, but I still would doubt that smokers have ever been in the majority. Of course, the prevailing stink spread by smokers and smouldering ashtrays always made it seem that smoking was universal.

  • 2

    borscht

    I have the exact same right to smoke indoors as you do to NOT smoke outdoors.

    You can smoke indoors all you want. If the indoors is limited to your room or in a room with no non-smokers. As for my "right" to not smoke? How is not killing myself a "right?" I'm confused by this statement.

  • 0

    Patrick Hattman

    Don't feel too bad for JT. They've offset the decrease in smokers and the declining income from that sector of their huge business by expanding tobacco sales overseas for many years now. They've expanded elsewhere in Asia, in Europe....

    Some of the former American brands sold in Japan are in reality Japanese since JT bought the rights to them a number of years ago. When I lived in Japan, the walls of the trains were always full of ads for them, generally with pics of white guys and gals having a good time. Of course JT would never try to mislead the public with some deceptive ads. They were just trying to entertain, I guess.

    For all the talk of JT being a "private" company, the gov't still holds a majority stake in the company-as mandated by some arcane provision in a very old law which is still conveniently on the books. If someone-specifically the Finance Ministry-holds a majority stake in a business, then they still hold quite a bit of influence over the decision-making, if not outright control of it.

    JT has spread its tentacles into so many different brands of food and drink, pharmaceuticals, let alone their overseas business, that it's hard to imagine they really care much anymore if their cigarette sales continue to go down.

  • 1

    sfjp330

    With the decrease in tabacco tax revenue, Japan government will probably keep increasing the tax and more people will stop smoking. It's getting too expensive and some people cannot afford the continue the habit.

  • 1

    japan_cynic

    Four words: Thank You Starbucks Japan.

    Anyone who's been here a decade or more will know what I mean.

    These days, I actually find smoking to be more of a nuisance when travelling abroad - especially smokers in the streets, which are largely banned in major urban areas here in Japan (at least, the ones I visit).

    Of course, there are still smoky cafes and restaurants to avoid - but these days, you usually can avoid them (see my first sentence).

  • 2

    SpanishEyez37

    I really wish TGI Friday's here would go non-smoking. The one in Yokohama has an enclosure (kind of) ,but the one in Shibuya doesn't. I am asthamatic and I can't hang with going to smoky places, which is why I don't even go to clubs or bars anymore.

  • 0

    SpanishEyez37

    The most annoying smokers are the ones who smoke and ride their bikes. I don't need to be hit with their noxious smoke while you ride by ride ugh!

  • 0

    japan_cynic

    I agree about TGIF. Since you mention Yokohama, if you want a nice alternative, try the Bashamichi Taproom - great BBQ food and much better beer. Oh, and no smoking (at least in some areas, I've never noticed a problem).

  • 2

    Hunter Brumfield

    @ John Putnam

    "I can smell smoke from my balcony" Find a place to live that does not allow smoking at all in the entire building"

    I suspect you are just trying to be obnoxious... we have lived in this apartment 22 years. We are supposed to somehow find another and move because someone else blows his smoke into our living room, rather than his own?

    Right. Thanks for your 2 cents, now worth 1.54 yen.

  • -1

    oberst

    be prepared to step in when the tobacco tax revenue dried up........................ cheers

  • 0

    stuart_jukes

    @ ranger_miffy Where do you get your figures from to suggest that in places where a smoking ban is in place business went up? Here in the UK the traditional pub trade has been almost decimated since the EU smoking ban. -Hundreds of pubs close every month now as people just don't go out. A published study showed that after the first 3 years of the ban 7% of all pubs in England had closed and 11% in Ireland and Scotland costing the government millions in lost tax revenue and perhaps thousends of jobs (plus all of those small businesses who supply pubs). I know that it's not ALL related to smoking (there is a perceived financial worry here too ) but the ban is without doubt the biggest factor. The fact is that when smokers are forced to stand outside pub to smoke most of them prefer to stay at home, and those people who may have gone out with them also don't bother.

  • -7

    horrified

    but the ban is without doubt the biggest factor

    Stuart - I think you are way off base on that one. Sorry to nitpick your post, but the smoking ban is not a major factor in the UK's faltering economy. Please cite me some references if you think I'm wrong. But I do agree with you that pub businesses are seeing a loss because of it. But there is no ban in the pubs in Japan, and they are all feeling the economic downturn lately.

  • 0

    Patric Spohn

    @stuart_jukes I think Stu is right on track. That's exactly why I have been asking previously how much tax revenues are being collected annually, besides all the other points you have mentioned. Damn smokers :)

  • 0

    Hunter Brumfield

    I think most of the comments here by people who prefer clean air are not aimed at pubs, so let's try to make a distinction. Most of us recognize that if you want to go to a pub, you better be ready to pollute yourself that way, too.

    The argument is whether someone at a table next to you in a restaurant or lunch place, has some sort of self-absorbed right to gas everyone around him or her. Of course, it reaches all patrons (and staff) regardless of where you are seated.

    Today's lunch was a good example.

    We ate at a fairly nice place where as soon as you went inside you were greeted by the foul stench of cigaret smoke.

    We asked for non-smoking and were kept waiting for an empty table (but there were plenty of open seats in smoking). Fifteen smoky minutes later we had to go through the thick of the tobacco addicts' section to to be seated in non-smoking. Then of course when we finished, it was back through the smoking section again.

    So regardless of how good the food or friendly the staff, I most definitely would not go back there again.

    It's quite a shame because the food was reasonably priced as well.

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