Japanese government raises cigarette tax not public health policy

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Japan is attempting to curb its smoking rate — one of the highest in the industrialized world — by imposing a major tax hike on cigarettes. The new tax went into effect October 1. Even though smoking rates have declined in Japan, 37 percent of men and 9 percent of women still continue to smoke — a habit which causes 130,000 smoking-related deaths each year. Despite these alarming figures, smoking is still allowed in most bars, restaurants and cafes and was only recently banned in schools, hospitals and other office buildings in the Kanagawa region.

The slow progress of anti-smoking initiatives may be a result of the government’s 50.2 percent stake in Japan Tobacco, which means that if fewer people smoke, the government gets less money. “The real problem is state involvement in Japan Tobacco,” says Bungaku Watanabe of the Tobacco Problem Information Centre in Tokyo. “Tobacco policy is drawn up for the benefit of the finance ministry, as a revenue raiser, not as a public health issue. No other country in the world does that.”

ACSH’s Dr. Gilbert Ross agrees. “I think that the health authorities and the government in Japan have a clearly divided loyalty between raising taxes to discourage smoking and tacitly trying to collect more money.”

To demonstrate her surprise with how prevalent smoking in Japan really is, ACSH’s Dr. Elizabeth Whelan shared an anecdote about her desperate search for a smoke-free table at a restaurant during her travels there. “Finally, I found a table with a sign with a slash through it and was relieved to have found a no-smoking section, only to discover upon sitting down that the slash indicated that cell phones were forbidden, not cigarettes.”