Mount Fuji

A sham anti-smoking program
— Conflicts of interest tie Japanese government's hand

by KIROKU HANAI

(This article first appeared in the Japan Times of May 28, 2001.)

On May 31, World No-Tobacco Day as designated by the World Health Organization, a variety of commemorative meetings are scheduled to be held in Tokyo, Shiga Prefecture and other places under the sponsorship of the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry. WHO's slogan is: Secondhand Smoke Kills. Let's Clear the Air.

The Japanese government translation of "kill" reads "shortens your life," but an anti-smoking non-governmental organization translates the word as "kills people around you." The government version is like describing homicide as injury. This official translation apparently reflects a political desire to play down the evil effect of smoking. This has to do with the fact that the Finance Ministry is a major shareholder in Japan Tobacco.

The government's half-hearted attitude toward smoking is evident in the paltry funding provided for anti-smoking measures. The health ministry's fiscal 2001 budget earmarks 37.88 million yen, down 15 percent from the previous year. That is a shame. By contrast, the U.S. government sets aside a huge sum equivalent to tens of billions of yen.

There are only two years left before WHO adopts a framework convention on tobacco control at a general meeting in May 2003. At the first meeting of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Body on the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control held last October, the WHO secretariat proposed moving up the voting date by one year. The meeting itself, acting on a suggestion from the Brazilian chair, agreed on the need to take action as soon as possible.

Japan lags far behind the world's no-smoking movement. Cigarette vendors are ubiquitous. Smoking is allowed in workplaces, taxis and restaurants. Tobacco advertising is hardly restricted. The nation must make efforts to catch up with the global trend.

Symbolic of Japan's lag is the fact that the government, along with tobacco companies, has been the defendant in tobacco lawsuits. The opposite is true in the U.S. States where state governments sued tobacco companies, seeking huge compensation.

In 1998, for instance, seven Japanese with lung cancer, larynx cancer, pulmonary emphysema and other ailments attributed to smoking, filed a suit with the Tokyo District Court against the government. The plaintiffs, two of whom died later, demanded compensation from the government and JT, on the grounds that: (1) the health ministry had failed to carry out its duty to protect the health of the people; and (2) the Finance Ministry had neglected to order accurate and proper labeling to prevent tobacco-related injuries.

During the 16th hearing, which was held in late April, an economist specializing in medical affairs, speaking as a witness for the plaintiffs, spent time explaining elementary subjects such as the epidemiological relationship between smoking and lung cancer. In other industrialized nations the relationship between active smoking and cancer has already been officially recognized.

The witness deplored the fact that health injuries from smoking are still an issue in Japanese courts, despite the fact that world attention is shifting to damage from passive smoking. The hearing, which I observed, left the strong impression that the defendants were trying to prolong the trial by denying the epidemiological data submitted to the court.

With the government in the position of defendant, it is difficult to promote national anti-smoking measures. The government's position will be further weakened if an international treaty on tobacco control is put in place. And if the five remaining plaintiffs win the suit, millions of tobacco victims will file similar suits, and their enormous demands for compensation could create a big hole in government coffers.

In 1998 in America, tobacco companies agreed to pay a total of $246 billion in settlement money to the 50 states that had filed suits against them seeking refunds for medical expenses incurred in connection with tobacco-related diseases. Japan Tobacco, a party to that settlement, agreed to pay about $2 million each year to the state governments. In light of the U.S. experience, the Japanese government and JT should start negotiations with the plaintiffs to reach a settlement.

In addition to 10 million yen in per capita compensation, the plaintiffs are demanding: (1) the prohibition of tobacco distribution to retailers with vendors; (2) a complete ban on tobacco advertising; (3) the non-use of tobacco brand and tobacco company names in social events and programs; and (4) the enlargement of warning labels on cigarette packs.

It seems the plaintiffs' real objective is to induce the government to change its half-hearted anti-smoking measures, rather than obtain compensation. If so, a settlement can be reached easily once the government shifts the policy focus from securing tax revenue and protecting tobacco farmers to defending the health of the people.

The Tobacco Business Law requires the government to hold two-thirds or more of JT's shares. However, the company probably will be completely privatized sooner or later, given the spirit in which it shifted to private management in 1985. In fact, JT President Katsuhiko Honda, speaking at a government panel on the fiscal system in February, called for complete privatization so the company could use various methods to raise capital.

Meanwhile, the Finance Ministry, while it has control over JT, should direct efforts to establish new rules for tobacco advertising, marketing and marking along the lines of an international control regime now in the works.

Tobacco suits here bring to mind a recent Kumamoto District Court ruling in a damage suit filed by leprosy sufferers who had been segregated for many years under a government quarantine policy. The ruling accused the health ministry of neglecting its duty and the Diet of failing to take corrective legislative action. The government and the Diet may also be accused of negligence if nothing is done about tobacco disease, which kills 95,000 people each year.

In the 1997 white paper on health, the government acknowledged for the first time that smoking is injurious to health. The then health minister was Junichiro Koizumi. The hope is that his reform-oriented administration will push antismoking measures on a priority basis.

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Further tobacco-related articles by Kiroku Hanai: