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Lawmakers thwart Japan’s push for a smoke-free Olympics

TOKYO — Japan’s plans to make Tokyo smoke free ahead of the Olympic Games hit a fresh roadblock as lawmakers remain deadlocked over a Bill to ban the use of cigarettes in indoor public spaces, after a backlash from the nation’s restaurant industry.

A ‘No Smoking’ sign in Tokyo. A health ministry’s Bill, which wants to restrict smoking in public places, such as schools, hospitals, bars and restaurants, is opposed by about 90 per cent of lawmakers in Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Photo: AFP

A ‘No Smoking’ sign in Tokyo. A health ministry’s Bill, which wants to restrict smoking in public places, such as schools, hospitals, bars and restaurants, is opposed by about 90 per cent of lawmakers in Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Photo: AFP

TOKYO — Japan’s plans to make Tokyo smoke free ahead of the Olympic Games hit a fresh roadblock as lawmakers remain deadlocked over a Bill to ban the use of cigarettes in indoor public spaces, after a backlash from the nation’s restaurant industry.

The health ministry’s Bill, which aims to restrict smoking in public places such as schools, hospitals, government buildings, bars and restaurants, is opposed by about 90 per cent of the lawmakers in Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). They argue it would put bars and restaurants out of business.

Even after Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga ordered Health Minister Yasuhisa Shiozaki to persuade the LDP to support the Bill, it remains blocked for discussion by the party’s healthcare committee because neither side has compromised.

The government has not given up on the proposal because this could be the last chance for Japan to have a nationwide law that addresses second-hand smoke, according to the committee’s chair Naomi Tokashiki.

The proposed restrictions have come under sharp fire from bars and restaurants. Mr Shigeru Ishii, head of operations at the Japan Food Service Association, said last month that such businesses should be left to do what suits their customers.

The pushback does not reflect broader public trends, as the number of smokers in the country has steadily declined over the years. About 18 per cent of Japanese adults smoked every day or on occasion in 2015, compared with 24 per cent a decade ago.

“The voice of business owners was much stronger than that of the health risks,” Mr Tokashiki said in an interview on April 4.

“Even lawmakers who understood the health risks were faced with conflicts of interest.”

Efforts to raise taxes and make the country smoke free have also long been complicated by the government ownership of a stake in Japan Tobacco Incorporated, which is among the world’s largest cigarette makers.

Japan Tobacco in February forecast annual profit that missed analysts’ projections as it battles declining numbers of traditional smokers along with problems making its alternative e-cigarettes, and its shares have declined 19 per cent over the past year.

The current proposal on the Bill does not take operators of various businesses into consideration and is too rigid, said Japan Tobacco spokesman Masahito Shirasu, reiterating a February statement.

There was a concern that the law would not be reasonable and well-balanced, Mr Shirasu said.

An estimated 15,000 Japanese die from second-hand smoke every year. But the Asian country, which will host the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, does not have national rules on smoking indoors. Some municipal governments have local regulations on smoking. For example, in areas of Tokyo, people can smoke indoors but not outside.

The proposed legislation will hurt restaurants in rural areas the most, with the least effect in cities such as Tokyo, said Mr Tokashiki, the LDP lawmaker. Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga remains determined to push forward with the Bill, saying on Monday that it should be submitted promptly. BLOOMBERG

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