Photo/IllutrationA sign banning smoking from June is posted at a restaurant operated by Kushikatsu Tanaka Holdings Co., where 92 percent of the shops are now smoke free. (Provided by Kushikatsu Tanaka Holdings Co.)

New legislation to ban smoking inside public places does little to ease concerns about the well-documented health hazards caused by secondhand smoke.

Non-smokers are still wondering how much longer they will be unfairly subjected to the health risks posed by passive smoking.

The bill passed into law July 18 by the Upper House purports to tighten restrictions on smoking in restaurants, bars and public buildings to make the nation friendlier to non-smokers prior to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.

The revised Health Promotion Law will be fully enforced in April of that year.

The bill was severely watered down in the face of heavy resistance from some members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

The central issue in the revision concerns smoking rules in restaurants and bars. The change bans indoor smoking in principle, but allows tobacco use, for the time being, in small-sized existing establishments operated by individuals or small businesses. With more than half of restaurants and bars around the nation falling on this category, the principle of prohibiting indoor smoking is applied only exceptionally.

How long will this situation last? Health minister Katsunobu Kato has left it unclear when a review for improvement will be made. He has only said he will make a “proper decision” concerning the issue.

The definition of “existing establishments” also remains unclear.

It is hard to fathom why a total smoking ban has not been applied to certain public facilities visited by many people, including children, such as the Diet and courtrooms.

The outline of the draft bill published by the health ministry last spring called for a total ban on smoking in all government offices. But the draft was revised to limit the ban to “administrative organizations” when the bill was submitted to the Diet and make it possible for the Diet to install “smoking rooms.”

Is the exemption of the Diet buildings from a total smoking ban aimed at pleasing lawmakers who smoke? The health ministry says the World Health Organization recommends a total ban within the parliament. Japan’s new smoking rules fall far short of the international standards.

Even so, the revision represents a small improvement on the current smoking environment in public facilities. Although this is only a small step forward, we have no choice but to start with this measure.

Tokyo’s ordinance to prevent passive smoking, which was established before the legal change, imposes a smoking ban in principle on restaurants and bars where people work. It has been estimated that the rule covers more than 80 percent of such establishments in Tokyo. The capital’s ordinance is more progressive than the national policy in this respect.

It is to be noted, however, that the ordinance still allows smoking in special rooms designated for the purpose. The guidelines set by the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which Japan has joined, do not allow the smoking room approach.

It is clearly necessary to conduct a survey to grasp the reality of unwanted exposure to cigarette smoke and take stronger actions to reduce the risks.

The Kanagawa prefectural government was among the first to embark on serious regulatory efforts to prevent passive smoking. It enacted its own ordinance to tackle the problem in 2009.

While the rules adopted by the prefecture represent even looser restrictions than those imposed by the revision to the law, the ordinance provides for surprise inspections for enforcement. Such inspections uncover about 1,000 cases of violations annually, mainly among restaurants and bars.

The prefectural government says these inspections are designed to encourage businesses to make voluntary efforts and do not invoke punishment.

But laws and ordinances are meaningless unless they are effectively enforced.

The central government should try to learn lessons from Kanagawa’s experiences by studying the situation in the prefecture.

Continuous efforts are needed to bring Japan closer to the international standards of smoking restrictions, which require a total ban on indoor smoking.

--The Asahi Shimbun, July 19