Smokers face increased restrictions in Tokyo

TOKYO - Extensive regulations have made it increasingly difficult for smokers to find space in downtown Tokyo to practice their habit.

Smoking bans are the norm in public spaces such as office buildings. In central Tokyo, municipalities have been strengthening controls on smoking in public, with designated spaces on the street among the few places where people can smoke.

But these designated smoking spaces have been closing due to continual complaints to municipal governments.

Smokers may feel increasingly put-upon as areas where people must pay to smoke are emerging in the city.

Regulations on smoking have prevailed over the past decade. Smoking was banned at railway stations and other public facilities when the Health Promotion Law was enforced in 2003, which included measures to reduce passive smoke consumption. Regulations at commercial facilities and drinking establishments were strengthened following a notification issued by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry in 2010.

Smoking areas may be set up in a separate part of a facility, with the costs incurred by the operator. Installing a smoke neutralizer and other necessary equipment can be expensive, which could deter facility operators from installing such equipment, thereby increasing the number of spaces where smoking is banned.

Outdoor smoking bans have been spreading in central Tokyo. Since 2002, smoking has been banned on the street in Chiyoda Ward. Smoking is now also banned on the streets of Shinjuku and Toshima wards.

Designated areas near public facilities are some of the only places where people can smoke.

However, these areas have been decreasing in number. In Shibuya Ward, designated areas with ashtrays have been set up in 24 places as other principal areas, such as around Shibuya's railway and subway stations, are no-smoking zones.

But people regularly smoke outside the areas when the designated spaces became too crowded. In the past year, the ward government dismantled two smoking areas after receiving numerous complaints about secondhand smoke.

In 2009, the Chiyoda Ward government began a program to provide subsidies of up to 5 million yen for privately owned buildings to create on-premises smoking facilities. But the subsidy system was used for just four projects.

Hisashi Abe, 54, chief of the ward's Safe Life Section, said, "We can't forcibly carry out the expansion of no-smoking areas." Therefore, the ward cannot find a breakthrough measure.

A Tokyo-based firm sees the smoking restrictions as a business opportunity. General Fundex Co. opened three smoking facilities around JR Ochanomizu Station in Chiyoda Ward earlier this month. Named "ippuku" (a puff), the facility is equipped with an air conditioner, chairs, a vending machine and large displays. Open from 6 a.m. to midnight, use of the facility costs 50 yen and there is no time limit.

"You can enjoy smoking in an air-conditioned space without being bothered by others," said Akihiro Hineno, 42, business planning director of General Fundex.

"You must pay 200 yen if you order a cup of coffee at a cafe where smoking is permitted," Hineno said. "Compared to this, 50 yen is much cheaper." The three facilities are used by about 900 smokers in total per day.

Patrons had mixed responses when asked about the facility.

A 28-year-old female worker appreciated the facility's existence, saying, "It's rather nice to go there when I want to smoke without worrying about the eyes of others."

But a 54-year-old company employee was sheepish, saying, "50 yen is equivalent to two cigarettes, so I'm skeptical about whether the price is worth it."

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