The Japan Times
Thursday, March 23, 2000

Tobacco-curbing target up in smoke

Staff writer

Up in smoke -- that is the simplest way to describe the fate
of an ambitious Health and Welfare Ministry plan to drastically cut the
number of smokers as well as overall tobacco consumption in Japan by 2010.
The ministry boldly proposed to halve the number of adult smokers
as well as the number of cigarettes consumed in the next decade, as a core
component of its plan unveiled in August to improve the nation's health in
the 21st century.
The cut was a key feature of a shorter-term plan to enhance the
health and quality of life within the nation over the next 10 years by
addressing problem areas -- ranging from oral hygiene to cancer -- and
setting numerical goals to tackle them.
But the controversial goal was dropped due to stiff resistance from the
tobacco industry and retailers, as well as politicians -- largely from the
Liberal Democratic Party --affiliated with the industry and tobacco growers.
Following a petition by tobacco retailers and political
pressure, the ministry and its advisory committee drafted a watered-down
version of the plan that recently got the final go-ahead.
The revised plan is not nearly as aggressive. It outlines an
education campaign to boost awareness of the negative aspects of smoking,
calls for no-smoking zones in public areas and the workplace and includes
support for smokers seeking to beat the habit. Only the goal of stamping out
underage smoking remains intact.
Questioned about the back pedaling, Health and Welfare Minister
Yuya Niwa responded that the majority of advisory committee members
concluded that fixing a percentage target by which to reduce the number of
smokers would be too ambitious.
"Tobacco is a luxury product, a matter of preference, and I hope
citizens understand this," he said, adding that there are limits to what the
government can do.
But dissenting members of the committee feel otherwise.
"I am of the opinion that if numerical targets are set for the other
items in the plan (such as alcohol consumption), one for tobacco should be
in there as well," said committee member Shigeki Matsunaga, who works for
the welfare policy division of the Japanese Trade Union Confederation
The government's move is in stark contrast with efforts by other
developed nations that are almost uniformly cracking down on tobacco.
It also blows smoke in the face of the World Health Organization,
which is putting together an international treaty to reduce tobacco
consumption and held an international convention on tobacco policy in Kobe
last year.
Fellow committee member Hirotsugu Ueshima, a professor of
medicine at ShigaUniversity of Medical Science's department of health
science, wonders how the government will gauge progress without concrete
numerical goals.
"It is really a shame that (the numerical targets) died because of
tobacco industry pressure," said Ueshima, adding that industry resistance
was predictable. "There is nothing mysterious about it."
But what he cannot fathom, he said, is why this should affect a
health policy decision. Susumu Sanagi, head of the ministry's Health
Promotion and Nutrition Division, which is in charge of the plan, maintained
that halving smoking and tobacco consumption was more of a slogan than a
"We laid out all the information and had open deliberations.
Ultimately, members of the committee decided that a plan without numerical
objectives (regarding the number of smokers and tobacco consumption) was
more appropriate."
The plan is not completely devoid of numerical targets, he
maintained, emphasizing that it calls for smoking among youngsters to be cut
to zero and the promotion of public awareness of tobacco's dangers as well
as tobacco-quitting support systems in 100 percent of the nation's
Currently, more than 50 percent of men and 10 percent of women --
which translates to just over a third of all Japanese -- smoke, according to
ministry statistics.
People in their 20s comprise the age bracket with the
highest and fastest-growing percentage of smokers. Health experts point to
this statistic and others -- such as a doubling of young female smokers and
the 25 percent of male high school seniors who smoke -- as reasons for
concern that tobacco-related problems will continue to skyrocket.
But because of the time lag before smoking-related diseases
strike, the repercussions of postponing the reduction of tobacco consumption
may have severe health consequences that will be a long time in coming,
warned Yumiko Mochizuki, formerly of the Health and Welfare Ministry and now
chief technical officer at the National Institute of Public Health.
Nearly 12 percent of deaths are tobacco-attributable, and this
figure will only grow if smoking rates do not drop, she said. "(But) I don't
expect smoking to decrease much in the next 10 years."
While the percentage of smokers has dropped from its peak --
almost 85 percent of men smoked in 1966 -- the amount of cigarettes consumed
per person has ballooned from 600 to over 3,100 annually. Mochizuki said
this figure is a much better indicator of future health risks.
In addition, because Japan is such a huge market for cigarettes and,
unlike most other advanced nations, has not taken steps to trim tobacco use,
it is an open invitation to foreign tobacco makers that can be fairly sure
they will not face stiff regulations here for the next decade.
"Japan Tobacco and tobacco retailers gathering signatures and
putting pressure on the of Health and Welfare Ministry -- that is a
political issue. Protecting the people's health ... reducing the percentage
of the population that smokes -- this is a health issue and should be
approached as such," Shiga University's Ueshima said.