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Will Japan ever become tobacco-free?

What do Pierce Brosnan, James Coburn, and Charlie Sheen, as well as a number of other famous movie stars have in common? They have all appeared in tobacco advertising aimed specifically at Japanese audiences. If you live in Europe or the U.S., you probably haven't seen these tacky ads. In such an awful way, global tobacco companies used their influence to get more Japanese people to smoke, even as the serious risk associated with smoking was already well-known.

Smoking in Japan remains high, compared to other countries. The warning labels on the cigarette packs are tiny and the message weak. This is changing, as Japan Offspring Fund describes in the February, 2005 issue of our members' magazine.

Why are warning labels so tiny? Public health activists are very critical of the government's way of handling tobacco control. The Japanese government still holds a large stake in Japan Tobacco Inc. and the powerful Ministry of Finance has blocked strong warning language proposed by the Ministry of Health. The labels currently state: "As smoking might injure your health, be careful not to smoke too much". In fact, deaths from smoking has been estimated at about 110,000 a year.

Stricter regulations demanding new, larger warning labels will appear in Japan from June, 2005. Already, Japan Tobacco is preparing to alter its approach on some brands such as Mild Seven. The rest of the company's nearly 100 different brands will be changed later this year. JT officials said to The Japan Times that the firm needs an incremental approach "because it takes time to change package designs". In fact, Mild Seven can no longer be sold in Europe, because the word "mild" is false and misleading. There is no such thing as a mild or harmless cigarette.

The new regulation demands that warnings cover at least 30 percent of the package's front and back faces. Tobacco makers will have to print at least two of eight messages dictated by the Japanese government.

One new message reads: "Smoking is one cause of lung cancer. According to epidemiological studies, the risk of smokers dying from lung cancer is estimated to be two to four times greater than that for nonsmokers." Another reads: "Although it varies depending on the individual, nicotine causes addiction to smoking."
Japan Offspring Fund's investigation reveals how seriously many other countries now consider the need to regulate smoking. For example, in New Zealand, smoking is banned in offices, restaurants, and pubs. Ireland and Norway have similar bans, and Sweden will introduce such bans in all public places from this summer.


Stricter rules needed

Japan has agreed to the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which was adopted in May 2003 during an assembly of the World Health Organization. This could be a major step for Japan to start to become tobacco-free.

As for warning labels, Japan seems hopelessly out-of-date. In other countries, including Canada and Singapore, color and graphic illustrations are already printed on packages, and written warnings do not beat around the bush. Rather, the text says it directly, like: "Smoking kills." The 25 European Union member countries are also introducing photos and vivid warnings on cigarette packs.

In January, 2005, Japan began to address the issue of underage smoking, with a meeting of officials from 14 government bodies. Better education and counseling are needed, Asahi Shimbun reported. The Finance Ministry is actually banning outdoor advertising from April, 2005. Ads on buses and trains will also have to change. While the national government has been terribly slow to act, hundreds of local governments across the country have started campaigns to get their smoking citizens to quit, according to The Mainichi Shimbun.

The Fukaura City Government in Aomori Prefecture banned outdoor cigarette vending machines. Many other cities around Japan have expressed an interest in setting up similar laws. Also, the Itami City Government is planning to get all of smokers in the area to quit within the next decade. From 2003, a new health law made it obligatory to protect citizens from secondhand smoke. According to a 2004 survey by Kyodo News, 18 of Japan's 47 prefectures had banned or decided to ban smoking in schools.

Anti-tobacco activist Bungaku Watanabe from Tobacco Problems Information Center, thinks Japan is approximately 20 years behind other countries in terms of workplace policies banning smoking. The May 2003 law requires that 11 types of facilities, including schools, hospitals and restaurants create nonsmoking areas or adopt nonsmoking hours of operation.

"The Health Ministry, that is in charge of counter measures against the effects of tobacco, is carrying out such weak measures," said Watanabe. For example, from 2005, smoking is banned at sumo matches. Mr. Watanabe said: 'Train stations, sports areas and youth hangouts have got better.' But he adds: 'It looks like Japan has made progress but really it has not.'


From 2005, tobacco warning labels will become larger also in Japan. Other countries have already started using much more graphic warning information, including photos.

Canadian warning label: Cigarette smoke causes oral cancer, gum disease, and tooth loss"
EU warning label (proposed by the European Commission): "Smoking causes aging of the skin"
Japan Tobacco Inc. continues to sell its "Mild Seven" in Japan and other Asian countries, including Korea. In Europe, names such as "mild" or "light" are no longer permitted. There is no such thing as a "mild" cigarette!



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