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Burning the Cigarette at Both Ends

As one Tokyo ministry launches anti-smoking efforts, another undercuts them in order to protect stake in tobacco industry.


TOKYO — For the first time ever, the Japanese government is expected this summer to formally acknowledge that smoking is a direct cause of illness.

The Ministry of Health has published such warnings under its own authority in the past. However, its views on the dangers of cigarettes have never been ratified by the Cabinet as official policy in a land where 58% of men and 14% of women are smokers.

Japanese anti-smoking activists say that is because of opposition within the government from the mighty Ministry of Finance, which collects $16 billion in revenue each year from cigarette sales and has traditionally shunned stiff regulation of the tobacco industry.

This June--three decades after the U.S. surgeon general concluded that smoking is a principal cause of lung cancer--the Japanese Ministry of Health plans to submit for Cabinet approval a white paper on health and safety, stating that smoking causes disease and warning about the dangers of secondhand smoke.

"It could be a turning point," said Makoto Kumaki, spokesman for the Ministry of Health.

But Japanese media report that a bureaucratic battle is brewing between the guardians of health and the mandarins of finance.

Ordinarily, the Ministry of Finance, which has vast powers over the budgets of other government agencies, would be expected to prevail. But the Japanese anti-smoking movement is gaining ground, public attitudes toward smoking are toughening, and the Ministry of Health is expected to triumph--at least on the policy report, if not on stricter regulations.

Officials at both ministries denied that a feud exists. Kumaki said a draft of the report has been circulated to the other ministries for comment, and he acknowledged that its final wording is still "to be negotiated."

"We must be more outspoken about the dangers of smoking," said Kumaki, who works in a Ministry of Health office where the air was thick with cigarette smoke on a recent morning. "We must especially protect pregnant women and minors, and talk about the problem of passive smoking--that it is unpleasant for people who do not smoke, and not just unpleasant but may also have a negative effect on health."

Akira Ono of the Finance Ministry's Tobacco and Salt Department said his ministry recognizes that smoking is a "risk factor" for disease but rejects a specific link between smoking and lung cancer or heart disease in any individual, because diet, lifestyle, occupation and environment also play roles in those illnesses.

Although Japan's state-owned tobacco monopoly was broken up in 1985, the government still owns two-thirds of its successor, Japan Tobacco, which is regulated by the Finance Ministry.

"The government and the tobacco industry are virtually one and the same," wrote Mark A. Levin of the University of Hawaii law school in a study of Japanese tobacco regulation. "The Japanese government promotes tobacco consumption and industry interests, while restraining action addressing tobacco and health."

Japanese restrictions on the tobacco industry are featherweight by U.S. standards.

Cigarette advertising is legal, although the industry advertises on television only between 10:54 p.m. and 5 a.m.


The Ministry of Health has talked about banning sales from vending machines, which account for 40% of cigarette sales and are blamed for a surge in underage smoking, but has taken no action except for a nonbinding request that the industry turn off the machines overnight. And the warning labels on Japanese cigarette packages inform smokers that "it is feared that smoking could damage your health," a far cry from the dire warnings on U.S. labels.

Official pronouncements have been equally tepid. A 1988 report by the Ministry of Health, for example, declared: "Tobacco is a popular item, but research shows it has various effects on health and so there is a need to give citizens sufficient information about its harm and to work to prevent minors from smoking."

"The Finance Ministry is the obstacle," said Bungaku Watanabe, vice president of the Group to Establish Nonsmokers' Rights. Watanabe said he would welcome tougher anti-smoking talk from the government--but is not expecting regulatory action soon.


Habit Forming

The smoking habit has made major inroads among Japan's young adults. Of those in their 20s, 60.9% of men and 16.9% of women smoke-- higher rates than among any other 10-year age span.

Of male smokers ages 20-29:

6% Smoke more than 2 packs a day

65% 1-2 packs a day

29% Less than 1 pack a day


Of female smokers ages 20-29:

1% Smoke more than 2 packs a day

35% 1-2 packs a day

64% Less than 1 pack a day

Source: Japanese Ministry of Health

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