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Politics

Hopes for smoke-free Tokyo Olympics nearly snuffed out

Gov. Koike backtracks on tough rules after electoral drubbing by Abe

Tokyo lags behind other global cities when it comes to restricting smoking in public places.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Japan's capital has a reputation as a smoker's paradise, and despite the governor's tough talk of a crackdown, this looks unlikely to change much before the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

A campaign to make the games smoke-free is fizzling out, as Gov. Yuriko Koike backtracks on a pledge to introduce tougher restrictions than the central government. Medical experts are urging her to keep up the fight, but her ill-fated attempt to challenge Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in last fall's general election has left her nursing political wounds.

Back in September, Koike unveiled a draft ordinance that would ban smoking indoors "in principle." Establishments with up to 30 sq. meters of space would be exempt, while larger ones would still have the option of creating a designated smoking room. At the time, she directed a barb at Abe: "If the state doesn't do it, Tokyo will do it on its own."

Abe's government has its own policy to curb smoking in public places, but it has been watered down due to strong opposition from within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

Now, Koike has put off submitting the ordinance to the metropolitan assembly this spring. "We could confuse citizens in Tokyo if we make a proposal different from the central government's," she said on Jan. 30. "We intend to proceed [with the initiative] in step with the central government."

While the ratio of smokers in the country is in decline, doctors worry the anti-smoking movement is losing momentum.

Haruo Ozaki, head of the Tokyo Medical Association, voiced concerns about the central government's lukewarm stance on Feb. 18 and encouraged Koike to stick to her guns. "The winds are blowing against" the movement, he said at an international conference on preventing passive smoking, organized in Tokyo by the Japan Medical Association. But he deployed a ski jumping analogy: "Ski jumpers can fly higher when the wind is against them. I hope Gov. Koike will pull off a big jump."

But Koike seems reluctant to take any leaps of faith after her party's electoral drubbing.

An official close to Koike said the abrupt shift in the metropolitan government's attitude was triggered by the election result. After her party's disastrous defeat gave Abe a fresh and overwhelming mandate, Koike started avoiding anything that might incur the wrath of the prime minister, the official said. 

This pub, like so many others in the capital, allows smoking.   © Reuters

Many political pundits also believe the metropolitan government's share of local consumption tax revenue was lowered for fiscal 2018 as revenge for Koike's victory over the LDP in last summer's assembly election. The governor may be reluctant to stir up any more animosity with tougher smoking rules.

But in backtracking, Tokyo is going against a global consensus. In 2010, the International Olympic Committee and the World Health Organization agreed to promote smoke-free Olympics. The three latest host cities -- Beijing, London and Rio de Janeiro -- all imposed bans in restaurants and other public places without allowing for self-contained smoking rooms.

Koike's proposed rules would have left more leeway than those cities, by allowing smoking rooms, but would have been comparable to Paris and Berlin. 

The central government, meanwhile, has drastically weakened its original proposal by exempting all eateries with up to 100 sq. meters of space -- meaning most establishments will not have to worry about imposing a ban. As in the metropolitan ordinance, the initial plan had been to exempt only small bars and restaurants measuring up to 30 sq. meters.

This is the second time a metropolitan government attempt to reduce secondhand smoke has fallen by the wayside.

In the summer of 2014, then Gov. Yoichi Masuzoe looked into such measures. But the LDP blocked him over concerns about antagonizing restaurant owners. Masuzoe gave up on establishing local regulations, saying the central government should take the initiative.

But with all eyes on Tokyo ahead of the Olympics, the latest setback could do more damage to the city's international reputation.

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