Olympic antismoking efforts in Japan run into resistance

Olympic antismoking efforts in Japan run into resistance
Tokyo Governor Yoichi Masuzoe.

Tokyo Gov. Yoichi Masuzoe completed his first year in office on Monday. In preparing the city to host the 2020 Summer Olympics, Masuzoe has made progress in areas such as scaling back infrastructure spending by revising the plan for competition venues.

However, one policy area is proving particularly problematic for the governor - smoking. Prior to the Games, Olympic host cities in recent years have passed laws and ordinances banning smoking, complete with punishments. The governor hoped to enact similar regulations, but has seen his ambitions stymied by powerful interests.

An initial retreat

"I want to ban smoking at all dining establishments and public institutions by 2020," Masuzoe told reporters last August, expressing his willingness to enact regulations with punitive provisions.

But when asked about the matter by The Yomiuri Shimbun on Feb. 4, Masuzoe acknowledged the difficulty of implementing a total ban, saying, "We aim to separate smokers from nonsmokers completely, but making it mandatory might be difficult."

Since the International Olympic Committee adopted a policy of banning smoking at event venues in 1988, it has become customary for host cities to enact similar laws. All cities that hosted the Summer and Winter Olympics over the past 10 years passed laws or regulations on smoking that include punishment, either by the host city or the country.

In an effort to curb passive smoking, the Tokyo metropolitan government revised its guidelines in 2011 to include a ban on smoking in public places. It also asked dining and other establishments to create separate smoking sections. However, the guidelines are not enforceable.

"The governor is investing a lot of energy in hospitality, so he wanted to enact regulations that include punishments before the Olympics," a source close to Masuzoe said.

Stiff opposition

Opposition to the antismoking movement started gaining momentum in September. The Liberal Democratic Party, which holds the largest bloc of seats in the metropolitan assembly, submitted an urgent written demand to the governor.

It stated, "Dining establishments, many of which are small businesses, would be better served not by uniform regulations but by promoting voluntary initiatives."

The demand essentially reflected the views of the dining industry, which is averse to any regulations it believes would cause it to lose customers.

Masuzoe appointed an expert panel to study the matter in October. The panel is expected to compile its views on passive smoking measures next month, though it appears unlikely that they will endorse the regulations.

In hearings involving industry associations in January, a representative of the Tokyo Medical Association said: "Separating smokers and nonsmokers indoors is imperfect. A complete ban on smoking is the only option."

In response, a representative of Tokyo-to Tobacco Shogyo Kyodo Kumiai Rengokai, which represents tobacco retailers in the capital, said the situation should be dealt with by "improving people's manners and creating a society that separates smokers from nonsmokers."

The Japan Food Service Association, which represents the dining industry, also opposed enacting regulations. "Sales could decline and people's businesses could be put in jeopardy," its representative said.

Policy first

Enacting similar regulations has proved difficult elsewhere as well.

Yamagata Prefecture called off an effort to enact restrictions last year.

In 2013, Osaka Prefecture submitted a draft regulation to the prefectural assembly that would have completely banned smoking in public facilities, but rescinded it in the face of opposition.

The metropolitan government's draft budget for the coming fiscal year includes ¥1 billion for measures to separate smokers and nonsmokers.

The government is scheduled to carry out a new project in which financial assistance is provided to dining establishments and other businesses in order to build separate smoking and nonsmoking areas.

"Enacting regulations in the current climate is difficult. Not being able to pass any laws or ordinances [on smoking] may hurt our reputation as an Olympic host city, so we have no other choice but to push effective passive smoking measures through individual policies," a senior metropolitan government official said.

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