Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stressed his commitment to taking all possible measures to protect people from passive smoking during his policy speech Jan. 22 at the outset of the regular Diet session.

But the Abe administration’s proposal to impose tighter restrictions on cigarette smoking in public places falls far short of expectations and doesn’t amount to any serious policy effort to achieve the goal. The government should redo its proposal.

The proposed measures are described in the outline of the government’s draft bill, which was released by the health ministry.

The administration wants to pass the bill to revise the health promotion law during the current Diet session.

The central issue for the revision concerns smoking rules in restaurants and bars. The draft bill would ban indoor smoking in principle but allow tobacco use in “small-sized” facilities currently operated by individuals or small businesses on condition that they have signs indicating that smoking is permitted or that it is allowed in separate areas.

The health ministry has yet to determine the definition of “small-sized” places eligible for the exemption from the smoking ban. A total area of 150 square meters is being considered as a possible threshold.

The ministry’s previous proposal, announced in March last year, would have limited the exemption to bars and pubs with an area of up to 30 square meters. The latest proposal is far less restrictive in terms of both size and business category.

The draft shows that the ministry has accepted almost all of the demands from ruling Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers opposed to the smoking ban.

Around 90 percent of eating establishments in Tokyo have a floor space of 150 square meters or less, according to a survey by the Tokyo metropolitan government. Three-quarters are private-run businesses.

In other words, the revision would not ban smoking in most restaurants and bars, leaving their employees at the risk of involuntarily inhaling toxic components from burning cigarettes.

It also remains unclear what exactly are “separate smoking areas.” The issue will be left to discretion of the owners of the establishments. It is possible that a restaurant’s smoking area would be located right next to a seat in a nonsmoking area.

For establishments without clearly separated smoking areas, the draft bill would ban customers and staff members younger than 20 from entering them.

But it is hard to imagine such restaurants declining to serve families with young children.

The ministry says the proposed special exemption for such existing establishments would eventually be abolished. But it is not clear when that will happen. Nor is there any legal basis for the step.

The bill has been watered down so badly that it is almost meaningless.

The ministry has earmarked 3.3 billion yen ($30 million) in its draft budget for the new fiscal year to subsidize restaurants installing smoking rooms to prevent involuntary inhaling of secondhand smoke. This is another misguided step.

The guidelines set by the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which Japan has joined, require a total ban on indoor smoking in public facilities, including restaurants and bars.

The guidelines do not allow the smoking room approach because this formula cannot prevent unwanted exposure to cigarette smoke leaking from such areas.

If the health ministry promotes the establishment of smoking rooms with taxpayer money, it would be acting in a way that runs counter to its efforts to lower the smoking ratio in Japan under its basic plan to reduce the risk of cancer.

As if falling into step with the administration, the Tokyo metropolitan government has dropped its plan to submit a draft ordinance to prevent passive smoking to the metropolitan assembly in February.

The decision contradicts Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike’s pledge to move faster than the central government in tackling this important public health issue.

We are deeply concerned that the capital’s movement toward a ban on smoking in public places could lose momentum.

The countries that have hosted the Olympics in recent years--China, Canada, Britain, Russia and Brazil--have all enacted legislation to impose a total ban on indoor smoking in public facilities.

Unless it radically changes its stance toward the issue, Japan could end up entertaining many of the foreign visitors to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics in smoke-filled restaurants and bars.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Feb. 1