Tokyo governor takes on big tobacco
TOKYO — Tokyo earned $1 million from an official Olympics-branded cigarette the last time it hosted the competition. Half a century on, Governor Yoichi Masuzoe is looking to restrict smoking before the 2020 Summer Games.
"I want to do this," Masuzoe said on a Fuji TV show last week when asked about the possibility of introducing stricter curbs. "If I get cooperation from the Tokyo Assembly, we can pass an ordinance."
The proportion of smokers in Japan fell to about 20 percent in 2014 according to Japan Tobacco Inc., from 47 percent in 1965, the year after Tokyo first hosted the Olympics. Yet even as secondhand smoke kills nearly 7,000 people in the country a year, there's no penalty for breaking current Tokyo guidelines on preventing passive smoking.
The International Olympic Committee adopted a smoke-free policy before the 1988 Winter Games in Calgary, adding pressure on cities to curtail tobacco use. In Britain, the last country to host the Summer Games, smoking in bars and restaurants has been banned since 2007. Russia, host of this year's Winter Games, introduced fines for smoking in locations such as eateries. The United States restricts smoking on a state-by-state basis, with New York having barred people from lighting up in public places since 2003.
Any effort to curb smoking may face resistance from Japan Tobacco Inc. The company was a state monopoly until 1985 and the Finance Ministry remains the largest shareholder. Revenues from tobacco taxes are forecast by the ministry to amount to 922 billion yen ($8.9 billion) in the fiscal year ending March 2015, compared with total tax revenue of 50 trillion yen.
Yoichi Takahashi, a former Finance Ministry official who is now a professor at Kaetsu University in Tokyo, blames the close ties between the tobacco industry and the government for the slow pace of Japan's smoking clampdown.
"Keeping the shares in Japan Tobacco allows bureaucrats to secure post-retirement positions for themselves," he said.
Yasutake Tango, who served as the top bureaucrat at the ministry, was appointed chairman of JT in June this year. The company said in an email it was unable to comment on the reasons for government ownership of its shares.
"While JTI supports regulation of smoking in many public places, we do not believe that laws prohibiting smoking in all workplaces and places open to the public are the solution," JT's international arm said in a statement on its website that is unrelated to the Tokyo smoking debate.
In Tokyo, the smoking curbs that are enforced in parts of city are mainly applied outdoors to prevent brush-by burns and littering, forcing people drinking outside bars such as Stand T near Tokyo Station to go inside to spark up.
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