Tougher Rules, Smart Cards Snuff Out Smoking in Japan

Posted by: Kenji Hall on October 23, 2008

Smokers are a dying breed in Japan. That’s one way of looking at the annual nationwide survey of smoking released by Japan Tobacco today. The country’s biggest cigarette maker found that 25.7% of Japanese adults light up—the lowest since the company began conducting the poll in 1965 and the 13th consecutive year that the overall figure was either unchanged or lower. (Last year, it was 26%.)

The trend can be traced to a number of factors. For years, the Japanese seemed oblivious to a mountain of research showing that inhaling cigarette smoke is harmful to your health. As little as a decade ago, more than half of Japanese men older than 20 (and 13% of women) considered themselves smokers. Back then it wasn’t unusual for offices to allow workers to puff away at their desks. Cigarette vending machines were as common as soft-drink machines, and many small shops ignored the laws against selling to anyone younger than 20.

Not any more. In recent years, many restaurants and offices have added non-smoking sections or banned smoking altogether, and government officials have gotten tougher on businesses that sell cigarettes to minors. In Tokyo, smoking is no longer allowed (or relegated to a limited area) at most train stations and along some streets it’s illegal to walk around holding a lit cigarette.

The country’s latest offensive against smoking could further speed the drop in rates. Since July, cigarette vending machines have been programmed to sell only to people carrying an age-verification smart card with an integrated-circuit chip inside. Tobacco passports, or Taspo, are issued by the Japan Vending Machine Manufacturers Assn. and the Tobacco Institute of Japan. and were designed to deter underage smoking.

It's still too early to gauge the impact of the cards but preventing smoking from a young age could prove effective. Of course, the cards aren't a foolproof solution: They're not required in regular shops. And there's nothing to stop a kid from borrowing an adult's Taspo. That's exactly what happened during a pilot test of the system. In June, a 41-year-old mother allegedly loaned her teenage son her card so he could buy a pack.

And while the population of male smokers continues to decline (the peak was an eye-popping 83.7% back in 1966, according to JT historical data), the quit-smoking message is proving a harder sell with women. This year, 12.9% of women over 20 said they smoke, the second straight gain and the highest since 2005.

Reader Comments

Tokyo salaryman

October 24, 2008 1:03 AM

Even though they banned smoking while walking in Chiyoda and Chuo wards years ago, people still walk down the street with cigarettes in their hand.

It's just like those signs they have on streets that say "No Bike Parking" and you always see four or five bikes locked up right in front of the sign.

I have a feeling young Japanese are less prone to smoke for personal reasons rather than due to these rules. I've yet to see the neighborhood beat cop stop someone for smoking on the street.

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Bloomberg Businessweek’s team of Asia reporters brings you the latest insights on business, politics, technology and culture from some of the world’s biggest and fastest-growing economies.

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