Saturday, September 24, 2011

Tobacco Smoking Culture in Japan

Tobacco smoking in Japan is very popular and much less restricted than in many other nations, and Japan accounts for the big share of the current tobacco consumption in Asia. Nearly 30 million people smoke in Japan, making the country one of the world's largest tobacco markets. Japan is one of the last industrialized nations in the world where adult smoking is still widespread; statistics show Japanese men smoke at one of the highest rates in the world. The smoking rate among adults was 52.8% in men and 13.4% in women in 1998. By 2008, the amount of smokers significantly declined to 29%, 43% of men and 13% of women.  Anti-tobacco propaganda is causing some Japanese to consider giving away this habit, and the total amount of smokers continues to gradually decrease. As of 2010, the total smoking rate dropped to 24%, 36.6% of Japanese men and 12.1% of Japanese women, and this is the lowest recorded numbers since Japan Tobacco began surveying in 1965.

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The history of tobacco in Japan goes back nearly 700 years and smoking among the general population has been common for over 200 years. The first use of tobacco in Japanese history dates from the 16th century, when Portuguese merchants brought tobacco to the southern part of Japan. Smoking spread from south to north, along with the cultivation of tobacco leaf. Cigarette manufacturing began around 1870 at the beginning of the Meiji era. At that time, a few large corporations gradually made cigarette smoking popular among the general population.

The Meiji government created a government monopoly over tobacco at the end of the 19th century. A tax on tobacco was introduced for the first time in 1883. Then, in order to collect taxes more eedctively to fund the expansion of armaments during a series of wars, the government made leaf production and procurement a state monopoly with the Tobacco Leaf Monopoly Law in 1886. Since then, the Japanese    government has been directly involved in promoting tobacco sales, with the result that cigarette smoking became popular.

The Japanese government in the late 1890s created the Japan Public Monopoly Corporation (JPMC), which later became one of the largest tobacco companies in the world. In the early 1980s, the Japanese government began discussions on the privatization of JPMC. Although strongly opposed by the JPMC union, the retailers association, the farmers association, and anti-smoking groups,   the Japanese government in 1985 converted JPMC to Japan Tobacco, Inc (JT), a non-governmental corporation, in order to enhance the corporation’s economic growth.

Still, many powerful governmental officials have strong business interests in the tobacco industry and thus tobacco control legislation is uncommon in Japan.

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A particular brand of cigarettes in Japan costs the same across all vendors, from cigarette machines to big supermarkets to corner shops. Bulk purchases are not discounted. Until recently, a pack of cigarettes cost was about 300 yen ($3 US).  As of 1 October 2010, the price of a typical pack of cigarettes went up significantly to 410 yen, in part because of a levy by the Japanese government of 3.5 yen per cigarette.

Vending machines

Cigarette-selling vending machines are everywhere--in office buildings, restaurants, and inside restrooms.  Up until recently anyone--even children--could easily buy cigarettes from the automated cancer vendors.  Apparently, high school kids loved this distribution system almost as much as the tobacco companies.  So, the new system has been developed empowering vending machines with the artificial intelligence to check for buyer’s ID before allowing a sale.  Now everyone wanting to purchase via vending machine must first register for a "tobacco card" certifying that they are of legal smoking age. 

Smoking laws and bans

Unlike in Europe and North America, where smoking bans apply to many restaurants, bars and public areas, smoking is possible almost anywhere in Japan. There are few anti-smoking laws, as many politicians have interests in Japan Tobacco. Japan Tobacco controls 66% of the cigarette market in Japan as well as the manufacturing and marketing of cigarettes such as Camel ,Winston and Mild Seven.

Many of the wealthier wards of Tokyo, such as Shinjuku and Shibuya, are applying various kinds of anti-smoking laws. They have designated special smoking sections in areas and it is punishable by fine if caught smoking outside these areas. Chiyoda-ku banned smoking while walking on busy streets from November 2002, the first local government in Japan to do so. While 22% of Kyoto hotel rooms are non-smoking, common areas like bars and restaurants are not.

The law also prohibits the smoking of cigarettes by persons under the age of twenty.

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Health and longevity

In spite of the extremely high rates of the smokers in Japan, people there enjoy one of the highest longevity in the World. The lower incidence of lung cancer in Japan, despite a higher smoking rate than the United States, is known as the “Japanese smoking/lung cancer paradox.” There are heated debates among professionals on why Japanese smokers have a lower incidence of lung cancer, even though they smoke more. The answer is most likely a combination of reasons that include:
  • Lower alcohol consumption by Japanese males
  • Lower fat intake by Japanese males
  • Higher efficiency of filters in Japanese cigarettes
  • Lower levels of carcinogens in Japanese cigarettes
  • Genetic factors that result in Japanese men being less prone to developing lung cancer
  • Earlier age of smoking onset in American men
  • Lifestyle factors other than smoking, such as diet and exercise.

Part of Japan's health success has been also attributed to universal health coverage, accomplished at a relatively low price: the country spends 8.5 percent of its GDP on health care, while the U.S. spends 16.4 percent, and Germany spends 10.7 percent.

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Smoking Manners

While the smoking popularity in Japan is going down, JT (Japan Tobacco) is making reasonable efforts to keep Japan’s smoking population at profitable levels. For the past few years the company has pleading with smokers to practice good manners and follow the “smokers’ style.” And if you’re in any doubt as how to be a good smoker, the company’s Web site is full of useful tips, smoking games, smoking history and suggestions on where to have a pleasant smoke.

In addition to outside smoking areas, the company has gone to trouble of establishing “Smoking Lounges,” cafĂ©-style spaces where smokers can puff away without having to shell out for a coffee. JT’s first “Smoking Lounge” opened at Narita airport in January 2006 but more have been popping up around Tokyo since. Naturally, there’s a catch to these “free” spaces. If you visit JT’s smoking lounge in Roppongi, for example, you’ll be given a sales pitch for Kent cigarettes (most likely by a young woman), asked to fill out a questionnaire and given you a free sample of Kent to try (one cigarette per person). Each smoking space appears to be promoting a different JT brand. JT also has the retro-looking SmoCar – a mobile smoker’s space that shows up at events nationwide and promotes smoking manners.

While an increasing number of cafes and restaurants are now closing their doors to smokers, Cafe Tobacco, which opened its first store in Shimbashi in 2009, is catering exclusively to cigarettes lovers (and offering exceptionally bitter coffee blends to boot). More smoker-friendly spots can be found in JT’s gourmet section, which concentrates on a different metro area each month. The guide also includes outdoor spots where a peaceful smoking experience can be enjoyed.

The gallery below shows the Smoker Manners signs, which promote the good smoker behavior and habits with great deal of creativity (click on the thumbnail to enlarge the images):


We can argue and speculate how Japan Tobacco is trying to divert public attention from the real danger of the cigarette smoking for health, but there is no doubt that having good manners and respect for the non-smokers is essential in every country and in each culture.

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