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COLUMN ONE

The Land Cigarettes Call Home

In Japan, half of all men smoke, and lung cancer is a leading killer. But then, the government owns 67% of the big tobacco seller.

November 20, 2002|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

SHIMOTSUMA, Japan — Teruo Araki wheezes as he glances down at the oxygen tanks that accompany him everywhere. "This is what smoking did to me," he says. "And I hold the Japanese government responsible."

The fist-sized tumor removed from his lung is hardly uncommon in a nation where half the male population smokes. What is rare is the 75-year-old Araki's willingness to speak out -- and file the first smokers' lawsuit against Japan's major tobacco interests.

Japan's slow-moving wheels of justice are expected to deliver a verdict early next year, five years after the case was filed, in a nation where courts rarely rule against the government. In the interim, three of the seven plaintiffs have died.

In other countries, governments are leading the anti-smoking fight with aggressive health warnings, advertising bans and multibillion-dollar lawsuits. Here, the government is tobacco's biggest supporter -- and biggest investor.

"The Japanese government cares more about money than people's health," said Yoko Komiyama, an opposition lawmaker and leader of a newly formed anti-smoking group in parliament.

Mix in special interests, powerful farm lobbies and a cultural reluctance among Japanese to question authority, and you have the makings of a deeply entrenched killing machine.

Although the rate of tobacco usage is gradually declining, 49% of Japanese men smoke, the highest level in the industrialized world, as do 14% of women. The greatest use by gender is among women in their 20s and men in their 30s, suggesting that the industry's aggressive courting of young people could reverse the decline.

These days, more voices are criticizing the haze. Bullet trains have reduced their number of smoking cars. A new law gives nonsmokers more rights, and some local governments are imposing smoking restrictions. Tokyo's Chiyoda district early this month initiated a $16 fine for lighting up on the street.

Still, in a nation known as a smokers' paradise, there are few limits on puffing away in restaurants, offices, even hospitals. And the issue of secondhand smoke remains largely off the radar.

The tobacco industry has the government's ear because they're arguably one and the same. The Finance Ministry owns 67% of Japan Tobacco, or JT, which until 1985 was a government monopoly. In an era of tight budgets, tobacco contributes $19 billion a year to government coffers in taxes and dividends, making it among the largest revenue sources. The ministry, not health authorities, controls tobacco policy, and promotion of the industry is an explicit national goal.

Add it up and, critics charge, you have a huge conflict of interest at best, with Japanese like Araki the big losers.

Close ties between the state and tobacco interests exist in many countries, but few affluent nations can touch Japan. Increasingly, tobacco policy in the world's second-largest economy is out of step even with Third World countries.

"Japan is 30 years behind Europe and the U.S.," said Yoshio Isayama, president of the Lawyers Organization for Nonsmokers' Rights, representing Araki. "Why hasn't Japan learned from their experience? Citizens just aren't given the facts."

Warning labels on U.S. cigarette packs include: "Smoking Causes Lung Cancer, Heart Disease, Emphysema, and May Complicate Pregnancy." In Australia, one label screams: "Smoking Kills!" And in Canada there is: "Smoking Makes You Impotent" beside a picture of a drooping cigarette ash.

With the tobacco industry in the driver's seat here, however, Japan's warning label is among the world's weakest: "Please remember to follow good smoking manners. As smoking might injure your health, please be careful not to overdo it."

"People from overseas laugh when they hear these," said Bungaku Watanabe, director of the Tobacco Problems Information Center, a civic group. "They're not warnings. They're a joke."

The Finance Ministry, in response to written questions, said it believes Japanese are adequately informed about tobacco-related health issues, with smoking an individual decision. There should be no requirement that Japan ban or reduce consumption, it added, given that tobacco is a legal product.

JT has argued in and out of court that the health risks are not scientifically proved. Atsuro Ito, a JT spokesman, said warning labels and health policy are determined by the government. The company, Japan's only domestic producer, is intent on finding new tobacco products with greater appeal for consumers, including women, he added. "We leave it to their judgment whether to buy them or not."

Although JT produces Marlboro cigarettes for the Japanese market under license from Philip Morris Cos., which has admitted that its cigarettes cause cancer, JT continues to deny any causal link. Yet the Japanese company, which has diversified into pharmaceuticals and food, also has invested millions researching drugs to combat lung cancer.

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