by Suvendrini Kakuchi
(IPS) TOKYO -- Japan is slowly shedding its "smoker's paradise" image as an increasing number of health-conscious Japanese demand anti-smoking measures to be implemented in public places.
But anti-smoking activists are not claiming victory yet and say they still have an uphill battle to wage.
On World No Tobacco Day, which falls on May 31, the popular restaurant chain Watami announced that it would make one of its branches in the capital smoke-free, starting in July.
"We are more than thrilled. The decision is groundbreaking in our long fight to make Japan smoke-free," said Masahiro Nakagawa, spokesperson for the Watami Group.
He told IPS, the chain had responded to requests from the public to make their restaurants non-smoking areas.
Indeed this is a breakthrough in Japan's hugely popular "izakayas" or cheap drinking and eating spots that dot the country. They are usually smoke-filled dens, given the large male customer base that they have.
"Customer surveys show there is a growing need to ban smoking in our restaurants. Our decision also is influenced by the recently passed Health Promotion Law by the government," said Nakagawa.
In 2000, Japan passed the Health Protection Law that identified smoking as a serious threat to the health of the Japanese people.
The law forced the tobacco industry to include larger health warning signs on cigarette packs -- about one-third the packet size -- to replace the current small print.
Smoking has also been banned in most offices and public places, while vending machines are now equipped with identity tags that prevent minors from buying cigarettes.
"Kicking the smoking habit is a key step to preventing cancer and we are working hard to raise consciousness on this problem," said Hiroyuki Kanda, the officer in charge of the Health Ministry's Lifestyle Reform Section.
"Cancer is the main killer in Japan and to stop rising deaths due to the disease we must raise awareness on its link with tobacco," added Kanda.
Latest surveys in 2003 indicate that in Japan more than 46 percent of men and 11 percent of women smoke.
While the high smoking rate among Japanese men is falling slowly, cigarette smoking among youth seems to be on the rise.
About 22 percent of Japanese male high school seniors smoke more than one pack a week, according to a recent survey by the Osaka Cancer Prevention and Detection Center.
The Tobacco Problems Information Center, a major pro-health organization, estimates that Japanese under the age of 20 smoked 40 billion cigarettes last year.
Go Urata, spokesman for the center, blames the low prices of cigarettes for the rise in youth smokers.
The average price of a 20-pack is 300 yen or three U.S. dollars, a figure that is expected to take only nine minutes to earn compared to Britain where the price is comparable to 40 minutes of labor to buy a pack.
Activists are campaigning for prices to be raised to around 1,000 yen (10 U.S. dollars) after surveys showed that consumption will drop by about 42 percent if Japanese had to pay more for their pack of cigarettes.
But Japan's powerful Japan Tobacco Inc, the third largest in the world and once the monopoly of the Japanese Finance Ministry, is putting up a tough fight.
This January the company launched six new brand names, and it now has a record of 18 brands up its sleeve.
Activists are also worried about plans by JT to increase its sales abroad to combat an increasingly health-conscious public.
Fiscal 2005 sales are projected at 222 billion cigarettes, up 9.6 billion on the year and marking a second straight year of growth.
Yuri Nicety, a researcher in health problems due to passive smoking said many Japanese are still at risk because anti-smoking areas are often situated next to smokers' places, allowing the inhalation of cigarette smoke.
Nicety, who has been called an "anti-smoking fascist," added: "Most of my research is conducted alone with some support from other doctors. It is an uphill struggle to change views in Japan's male-dominated smoking environment."
June 2, 2005 (http://www.albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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