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.