A daily bulletin of news & opinion

7 June 2010

Japanese cigarette taxes go up in October, and I wish I could gloat. Now into week three of quitting a 30-year habit, I visualise taking all the dough I’ve saved and rewarding myself with an exotic holiday or perhaps a new Mac. But sadly it won’t add up to much cash at all: Japanese ciggies will remain the cheapest in the developed world, at about €4 per pack, so when it comes to splurging my way out of my nicotine-deprived haze, I grapple not with such questions as “MacBook or Istanbul?” but “What style of new Speedos today?”

A cynic might say the government’s acting, well… cynically, that the tax hike of Y3.5 (€0.02) per cigarette is too small to push serious smokers to quit, while still gifting the government truckloads of money and creating the illusion that health officials are proactive. The tax rise was almost certainly discussed with Japan Tobacco, the former government monopoly (it was privatised in 1985, yet the government remains its biggest shareholder) and it’s no coincidence the package price will stay under the magic figure of Y500 (€4.5), at which smoking, at least to the smokers I know, really begins to look worth quitting.

But then, few corporations do sneaky as well as Japan Tobacco does sneaky: in the 1990s, after announcing “voluntary restraint” over airing cigarette ads on TV, it launched a series of commercials apparently selling nothing. The high-rotation spots featured a bowler-hatted man who might have stepped from a Magritte canvas, enigmatically toying with a cigarette lighter, and were in fact about “smoking etiquette”: little narratives about the man choosing not to smoke when he sat on a park bench near old people, for example, or when he found himself around children. He had the sort of dreamy, contented gaze you probably only see on bowler-hatted men after weird sex, and the entire campaign was creepy and unshakably catchy.

The tricks keep coming, most recently in the form of JT’s support for local council efforts to stop people smoking while they walk. To this end, while Tokyo city and many of its wards have passed by-laws prohibiting unfettered outdoor smoking, JT has erected special “smoking areas” serviced by industrial-sized ashtrays all over town. This might seem counter-intuitive: since smoking is legal and popular (some 37 per cent of men smoke), you might think a tobacco company would defend smokers’ rights to light up wherever they choose. Instead, JT even prints cartoon-like signs conveying such useful trivia as: “A cigarette carried by an adult is about level with a child’s eyes.”

The company’s strategy is sharply illuminated by editors Sander L Gilman and Zhou Xun in their book Smoke: A Global History of Smoking, in relation to another JT advertisement with a similar approach. “The ad emphasizes concern for others, self-control and politeness – all critical values in Japanese society,” say the editors. “At the same time it stresses that the person has chosen to smoke, can control his smoking and, as an adult, has the right to smoke.” In other words, JT is acting preemptively to carve out territory for the “non-addicted” smoker.

But there’s light at the end of this masterful vortex of mind control. Having concluded it was time to jettison my own “non addiction,” I discovered by chance that the government subsidises a quit smoking programme through certain medical facilities. This is not widely known and even my own GP had no knowledge of it, but the three-month programme is substantial, bringing the €600-plus cost down to around €180, and providing the patient with a supply of the Pfizer drug Chantix (known as Champix in Japan), which acts on the brain’s nicotine receptors.

For some time I was wary: I had read up on Chantix and its reported depressive side effects. Should I trust the clinic’s ebullient pharmacist, who assured me it was safe, but appeared to know nothing of its alleged risks? “Ooh, we’ve never heard of anything serious,” she said. “You might get stomach upset, or a bit nauseous, or irritable. But that might be nicotine withdrawal. This is a very, very good drug! You can quit! I love to see people quit! You can beat smoking!”

I still take encouragement from her face and expression; there was something very Japanese about the “we can do this together” cheerleading. And if her earnestness didn’t quite win over the contrary addict in me, I can also give thanks to my sardonic friend in London who, when I reported my progress to her, shot back an email saying: “That’s really really good, esp as im taking it u havent topped yrself either.”


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