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Japan faces murky path to restaurant-smoking ban

Big tobacco holds heavy sway in Liberal Democratic Party

Japan's health ministry aims to curb secondhand smoke with a proposed ban in restaurants.

TOKYO -- The future looks hazy for a Japanese ministry's efforts to extinguish secondhand smoke in restaurants, as pro-tobacco factions in the ruling party cloud negotiations even though less than 20% of the country now lights up.

The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare proposes banning smoking in all eateries, except for small bars and similar establishments under 30 sq. meters, a move geared in part toward the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Since the World Health Organization and International Olympic Committee teamed in 2010 on a "Tobacco Free Olympic Games" initiative, host cities have enacted similar bans.

But roughly 280 Diet members from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, or around 70% of the party's lawmakers, are affiliated with a pro-tobacco lobby chaired by legislator Takeshi Noda. The group, which decries what it sees as an attempt to stop Japanese people from smoking their sorrows away, proposes letting restaurants choose whether to allow smoking, ban it or confine it to certain sections.

Global public opinion largely holds that the use of smoking sections offers too little protection for employees and others who might inhale secondhand smoke. Yet the lobby, influenced heavily by the tobacco industry, sticks by the plan.

Tobacco industry groups form a major support base for the LDP -- mainly the roughly 5,500-member Japan Tobacco Growers Association and the 60,000-strong National Federation of Tobacco Retail Cooperative Associations. Those two groups have nearly 200 members for each single-seat constituency in the Diet, and they drove the collection of around 1.2 million signatures against the health ministry's proposal.

Excise taxes make up 60% of final tobacco sales prices, and annual tax revenues continue to top 2 trillion yen ($17.6 billion) even as the smoking rate declines. Noda once chaired the LDP's tax system research commission, which sets those rates and in which the industry wields heavy influence.

Small and midsize eateries also think the health ministry's proposal threatens their business. Managers of these establishments outside metropolitan areas often hold local sway, giving them influence especially over younger Diet members with weak support networks. As such, the LDP finds it difficult to respond to nonsmokers, even with smokers so much in the minority.

Eyeing the June 18 end date of the current Diet session, the LDP proposed Monday limiting smoking in eateries to a dedicated room -- a step closer to compromise than the version sought by the tobacco lobby, but deepening the divide with the health ministry's goal of no-smoking restaurants.

Meanwhile, Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike has suggested starting with restrictions in just the capital. The campaign against secondhand smoke could become another card in her arsenal as July municipal assembly elections approach.


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