There are welcome signs that the Japanese government is getting serious about steps to protect people from passive smoking as it prepares for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. Since Japan’s anti-smoking efforts are seen as among the weakest in the world, the government should aim to introduce a total ban on smoking in indoor public spaces.

It is not that Japan lacks legislation to control smoking in public spaces. A 2003 law to promote public health requires parties concerned to try to stop exposure to passive smoking in venues where large numbers of people gather, such as schools, hospitals, department stores and restaurants, but it carries no punishment for those who fail to take such steps.

According to the World Health Organization, 49 countries had laws as of the end of 2014 totally banning smoking in public spaces with penalties for violators. In assessing the measures taken here, the WHO rates Japan’s anti-smoking efforts among the worst in the world. That the WHO concluded an agreement in 2010 with the International Olympic Committee to aim for “tobacco-free” Olympic Games is giving the government a sense of urgency to introduce tighter steps against smoking in public spaces by 2020. But it is the effects on public health that should be prompting the relevant action.

The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry’s white paper on smoking, revised this fall for the first time in 15 years, cites a 2013 government survey on public health and nutrition showing that 9.3 percent of adults reported exposure to passive smoking almost daily at home, while 33.1 percent said they were exposed at least once a month in their workplace. Of the latter group, 46.8 percent experienced passive smoking in restaurants, 9.7 percent in administrative facilities and 6.5 percent in hospitals. The report also quotes another government survey on health conditions of workers that found 42.2 percent of nonsmoking workers were frequently exposed to passive smoke in the workplace in 2012 — a decline from 56.4 percent in 2007 and 72.9 percent in 2002.

A key point in the white paper is that it now calls for a total smoking ban in indoor public spaces, based on findings that link smoking to various diseases, including cancer. It points out that even if smoking areas are established in such places as offices and commercial establishments, it is impossible to prevent smoke from spreading to other areas, and that employees who clean smoking areas or work in such places as restaurants and bars are still exposed to secondhand smoke.

By analyzing various studies, the report says there is a sufficient causal relationship between passive smoking and such diseases as lung cancer, heart disease, strokes, childhood asthma and sudden infant death syndrome. While 5 million people around the world die of smoking-related health problems every year, passive smoking is attributed to the death of some 600,000 others. In Japan, the government estimates the annual number of deaths in health problems caused by active smoking at 130,000 and the casualties of secondhand smoke at 15,000. These numbers alone should serve as a clear warning about the health dangers of both active and passive smoking.

A few local governments have acted to combat the problem. Kanagawa Prefecture introduced a by-law in 2010 banning smoking in public venues like local government offices, schools, hospitals and shops, and mandating either a smoking ban or separating smoking and non-smoking areas with a partition — with the nonsmoking area occupying more than half the entire space — in such places as hotels, restaurants and entertainment facilities, although establishments that are 100 square meters or smaller are exempt. Operators of such facilities that fail to comply face up to ¥50,000 (US$7279) in fines and people who smoke in nonsmoking areas can be fined up to ¥20,000. A similar by-law was put in place by Hyogo Prefecture in 2013.

A plan compiled last month by the health ministry on legislation to fight secondhand smoke calls for a total ban on smoking in hospitals, school compounds and government buildings and offices. Smoking would be banned in principle in restaurants, hotels, railway stations, airport buildings and bus terminals, but their operators would be allowed to set up smoking rooms. Violations would be met with penalties for operators of the facilities and smokers alike.

The ministry’s plan to approve of smoking rooms in commercial establishments such as restaurants contradicts its own white paper that advocates a total ban in indoor public spaces. It is true that opposition from the food and tobacco industries has been the biggest obstacle to tougher measures — especially complaints from restaurant and bar operators that a smoking ban would hurt their sales. Even the ministry’s watered-down plan is likely to face resistance from affected industries in the process of drafting the legislation. The ministry and other concerned parties should note, however, that a total ban on smoking would put all businesses, large and small, on an equal competitive footing and thus would be most fair.

Efforts should also be made to raise public awareness, particularly among children, about the dangers of active and passive smoking. Schools, local governments, communities and the media should strive to establish programs to effectively convey the health risks posed by tobacco.

The News Lens has been authorized to republish this editorial. The original can be found here.

Editor: Olivia Yang