Japanese govt fails to enforce own ban on smoking

Japanese govt fails to enforce own ban on smoking
People smoke in a smoking area of central government building No.5, which houses the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, in Tokyo’s Kasumigaseki district.

Four years after announcing a total smoking ban in high-traffic areas of public office buildings and commercial facilities, the government continues to allow smoking in its own buildings.

Since it announced the ban, the government has repeatedly urged local governments to enhance efforts to implement the policy.

However, a recent study by The Yomiuri Shimbun found that no major state institutions have carried out the complete smoking ban at their offices, raising eyebrows among local governments about double standards.

At central government building No. 5, which houses the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, in Tokyo's Kasumigaseki district, a long line of officials was seen, even during working hours, in smoking areas set up in a corner of the office or on an open deck outside the second floor.

The health ministry has played a central role in the government policy.

"Elevators often stop at the second floor, and people smelling of cigarettes get in," an official of the ministry said.

The ministry's health and welfare division that manages the smoking area said: "We understand the current situation is not good, but it's difficult to consolidate opinions inside the ministry to realise the total ban. If we enforce a total ban, smokers will go out and smoke in neighbouring Hibiya Park or other places, which would bother other people."

A notice issued by the ministry in 2010 says that smoking should be completely banned in public spaces such as public office buildings, which means a complete ban on the entire premises of public buildings, in principle.

The ministry also has sent written notices to local governments to follow through on such measures in 2012 and 2013.

But when The Yomiuri Shimbun asked major ministries and agencies whether they have implemented the total ban inside and outside their own buildings, none answered that they do.

The National Personnel Authority, which is in a position to instruct government bodies to take measures against secondhand smoke, has its smoking area in an open space inside its building, where curtains serve as the only barrier between the smoking area and other spaces.

An official explains it is impossible to set up a smoking room because there is not enough space as there is also a ventilation area in place in case of a fire.

"It would be ideal if [smokers] became aware of the health risks of smoking and voluntarily quit," an official in charge said.

Only a few, such as the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry's general building, placed a complete ban inside their building, but some allow people to smoke outside.

Many government buildings have smoking rooms: There are 77 at the Defence Ministry in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo; 20 at the south building of the central government building No. 7, which houses the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry and others; and 15 at the central government building No. 3, where the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry and others are located.

Local governments confused

Many local governments have decided to implement the total smoking ban following the state's policy.

In autumn of 2010, the Tajimi municipal government in Gifu Prefecture imposed a total smoking ban at 115 public facilities, including the city hall and libraries. With some city officials having quit smoking since then, the smoking rate among male officials dropped by 7 percentage points to 27.1 per cent.

At the Aomori city office, officials have not been allowed to smoke at all during working hours from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. as of April 2013. Osaka Prefecture, Osaka city and Kobe implemented a total ban that includes off-duty hours at their buildings.

As the central government has not fully carried out the complete ban itself despite having issued the policy, several officials of local governments have complained about the double standards.

Prof. Hiroshi Yamato at the University of Occupational and Environmental Health, who is an expert on secondhand smoke, said: "Even if a smoking room is set up, smoke can leak when people open and close the door. I think the central government has to work on achieving a complete smoking ban as the leader of the policy."

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