It says a lot about a country when the top health official’s declaration of war against smoking stirs a backlash. Sadly, that’s Japan for you – a place where talking openly about trying to help smokers kick the habit makes you an easy target for criticism.
Anywhere else, health minister Yoko Komiyama’s campaign against smoking would probably get an approving nod, a shrug even, from the majority of the public.
Yet ever since Komiyama said last autumn that she wants to hike cigarette taxes her ministry’s efforts have been thwarted by lawmakers, bureaucrats and the tobacco industry. Even the ministry’s attempts to define smoking as a health hazard and set a goal of lowering smoking rates among adults have met resistance.
Komiyama is going on the attack, and is expected to ask Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s cabinet soon for an endorsement of her ministry’s 10-year anti-smoking plan.
Komiyama has been nothing if not methodical with her arguments. She has stated what everyone already knows: Japan has a smoking problem. One in five Japanese lights up regularly. The smoking population has declined in recent years thanks to a growing number of restaurants and offices going smoke-free. Some municipalities have passed ordinances against strolling around with a lit butt in hand. But Japan still has one of the highest smoking rates among rich nations.
Let’s face it: smoking is bad for you. You don’t have to be a scientist to have read about studies linking smoking to higher rates of cancer and heart disease and lower productivity. Japan has the added worry of soaring public debt and a national healthcare system that’s spending more than it can afford to care for a rapidly greying populace.
Komiyama has reams of statistics to support her cause. According to government data released last month, more than a third of smokers in Japan say they want to quit, and their numbers have been increasing every year.
In Komiyama’s view, cigarettes here are too cheap. The price of a pack of 20 is just over ¥400 (or €4) – and that’s after increases in the cigarette tax over the past couple of years. Other countries with more proactive anti-smoking policies have prices that are easily twice Japan’s.
Komiyama wants the tax on tobacco to go up every year for three years until the price of a pack hits ¥700 (or €7). As prices rise, there’s a bigger financial disincentive for people to continue puffing away. It also helps offset doctors’ bills from smoking-related health problems, which one independent Japanese research group estimates at ¥4.3trn (€42bn) annually.
It makes sense. So what’s standing in the way? Money. Farmers. Politics. Inertia.
But the biggest hurdle: the government has a controlling stake of nearly 50 per cent in the country’s dominant cigarette producer, Japan Tobacco. You can’t expect lawmakers and bureaucrats to go after a company that the government is a major shareholder of.
Of course, JT executives will be damned if they let health officials scare away business. They have finance ministry officials worried that with fewer smokers tax revenues will plunge and agriculture ministry officials fretting about the 11,400 farming households in Japan that grow tobacco exclusively for JT and collectively earn ¥54bn (€500m) a year doing so.
The government’s course of action should be straightforward. Cash out of Japan Tobacco. Penalise smokers with higher taxes. And support programmes to wean nicotine addicts. It remains to be seen whether reason can trump money.