Japan Smoking Targets Vague
TOKYO (AP) - When health officials drew up Japan's latest 10-year national fitness plan, they decided numerical targets were just what the doctor ordered.
A Japanese smoker walks past with a backdrop of large billboards of Japanese tobacco in Tokyo's Omotesando district.So, for the first time, the Healthy Japan 21 initiative features quantifiable goals, from reducing the number of heavy drinkers by 20 percent to getting people to walk an extra 1,000 steps a day.
But when it comes to smoking, the plan loses its precision. It promises only to ensure that people get ``sufficient knowledge'' about the risks of smoking.
The wording is hardly a surprise. The powerful Finance Ministry owns 60 percent of the nation's largest tobacco company and is committed by law to ``promote the health and development of the Japanese tobacco industry.''
With a male smoking rate of 54 percent - far higher than in America or Europe - critics are asking whether bureaucratic pride and industry profits aren't taking precedence over public safety.
According to a World Health Organization study cited in the plan, cigarettes were responsible for up to 95,000 premature deaths in Japan in 1995. That was 12 percent of all deaths that year.
Smoking-related disease and deaths added $11.1 billion to the nation's health bill in 1993, according to a private foundation affiliated with the Health Ministry.
``Shortsighted interests have been given priority over the health of the nation,'' said an editorial in the Asahi, one of Japan's largest newspapers.
The ministry says the plan is intended to help people make their own lifestyle choices. It says the decision not to set a specific target was made after hearing a variety of opinions from smokers and the tobacco industry.
``The Health Ministry really wants to reduce smoking, but it can't overcome the structural barriers,'' said Bungaku Watanabe, a veteran anti-smoking activist who organized an unsuccessful petition drive to include numerical smoking targets in the plan.
Japan is a smoker's paradise. Nonsmoking sections in restaurants are a relatively new concept. Smoking cars on trains are often more numerous than nonsmoking ones. Cigarette vending machines are everywhere.
When a draft of the Health Ministry's plan was released last summer, it included as goals cutting in half both the number of smokers and total tobacco consumption by 2010.
During months of public hearings, health officials received 2,021 comments and complaints, 90 percent of which were aimed at the anti-smoking goals.
Cigarette retailers gathered 53,700 signatures on a petition, and the National Central Union of Tobacco Cultivation Associations, the lobbying group for the country's 23,000 tobacco farmers, called on the Health Ministry to ``act appropriately'' on the farmers' concerns.
The governing Liberal Democratic Party weighed in with a resolution warning the ministry that the plan's anti-smoking objectives were ``constitutionally problematic.''
Tobacco is pound-for-pound one of the most valuable crops to Japan's farmers, who in turn are among the governing party's most important supporters.
``Without the support of agriculture, the LDP probably couldn't stay in power,'' said Minoru Morita, a political analyst. ``When the farmers talk, the LDP listens.''
The economic impact of tobacco is hard to deny. Japanese cigarette makers sold $37.6 billion worth of tobacco products in 1998 and generated $15.2 billion in national and local taxes.
Ordinary smokers also aren't happy about any crusade against tobacco.
``Look how far the government has gone in America - it's like the return of Prohibition or something,'' said 35-year-old Fumio Takahashi, flicking ashes from his Hi-Lite cigarette at a Tokyo cafe.
Tobacco industry officials also have played on concerns about government acting as big brother.
``What about sugar? It's linked to diabetes,'' said Noriaki Sumiya, spokesman for the Japan Tobacconist Federation. ``The next thing you know we're going to be told how many spoons of sugar we should put in our coffee.''
Supporters of a stronger anti-smoking campaign lament the watering down of the health plan's goals.
``I guess more people have to die from cigarettes before the issue of smoking is taken seriously in this country,'' said Dr. Akira Oshima, director of research at the Osaka Medical Center for Cancer and Cardiovascular Diseases.