OPINION: Japan Finally Bans Smoking Indoors (Sadly)

Can you believe that in the year of our Lord anno Domini 2020, in Japan of all places, often seen as decades ahead of everyone else, still allows indoor smoking? That’s right– at most restaurants you can light up right at the table, even in freaking Burger King. And of course, bars too. If anything, it was weird to be in a bar that didn’t allow it. Needless to say, it is probably visitors’ #1 complaint of an otherwise “perfect” country for holiday, and of course many of my fellow ALTs complain about it too. However, as of yesterday, April 1st 2020, indoor smoking is now effectively banned in all but small mom-and-pop restaurants. As foreigners all over Japan rejoice, the vast majority of whom are not even going to be in Japan more than a few weeks, or a few years,  I’m quite sad, even as a fellow temporary resident. Japanese people too, of course, are alternately happy or dismayed as well.

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Gone are the days of Chesterfield Christmases with Ronald Reagan.

Smoking is definitely on its way out, at least in the West. Most major movie studios have independently adopted ban on depicting on-screen smoking unless rated higher than PG-13 or for historical accuracy purposes, though if you notice, a majority of movies set in the late 20th century or before it are still mysteriously devoid of it despite how sterile it makes historical dramas look. Also: did you know, movie-smoking nowadays is achieved using herbal cigarettes, which contain no tobacco, tar, or nicotine. Commercials on TV have been banned since the 1970s in America. Even tobacco companies themselves don’t really promote “traditional,” combustible smoking anymore– one of the first jobs I applied for out of college was at R.J.  Reynolds, owner of Camels and American Spirits, and one of our duties would have been to try to convince smokers to switch to alternatives like snus or E-cigarettes. While in Japan, smoking is very much a part of daily life, being normalized to the extent that children’s textbooks still contain examples like “the old man is smoking” alongside “the boy is playing with his dog,” it is following along in the same footsteps with things like this ban.

To most people outside of Japan, and even in it, this ban is a good thing. But to me, while it is untenable to say that it is objectively a bad thing, I wholeheartedly disagree with this ban. And to those whose minds are already set, or who believe there is only one objectively correct answer to what should not even be a debate, I humbly entreat you to open your ears, and your mind.

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The dangers of secondhand smoking, while well-documented and somewhat warranted, are still overblown, and Japan is one of the best arguments in support of this seemingly crackpot theory. In a country where exposure to secondhand smoke/smoking is just a fact of daily life, especially in enclosed spaces, you would think that given how dangerous it is said to be, there is no possible way that Japan could be #2 in life expectancy, second only to Monaco, a country with a population of 39,000. Meanwhile, Japan consumes 1,583 cigarettes per person per year, about 1.5 times the global average of 1,083 and putting it in the top 20%. For comparison, the US is just about average at 1,016 yet #43 in life expectancy, a full five years less. Of course, there are many other factors at play in Japanese people’s longevity too, including simply genetics, and the fact that the Japanese diet is pretty healthy compared to other diets of the world. Daily movement is also a big part of life, with the rigor of PE and club activities in schools growing up and just the idea that you have to walk so much from place to place, helping put Japan in the bottom 10 for obesity.  Given this, I think one can fairly confidently conclude that for all its dangers, its impact on mortality is not as much of a death sentence as it is made out to be; insofar that it neither magically cancels or even has a visible effect on otherwise healthy lifestyles.

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In the same vein, it is undeniable that smoking rates are declining worldwide. Instead, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and yes, asthma are all increasing. There are much bigger fish to fry, and the fact of the matter is, anti-smoking legislation has gone far enough. Gone are the days of smoking in hospitals and on airplanes. For the majority of people reading this, if you don’t want to be around smoking, you never have to be. We no longer live in an era where you were constantly around it, in it, and constantly inhaling it from others in all environments, something the previous generation had to suffer, and who make up pretty much all of secondhand smoke deaths to this day. Otherwise, nowadays, in the 21st-freaking-century, the incidental exposure you may get, from walking by someone who is smoking, or passing by that pachinko parlor, is completely negligible given that merely being outside is actually leaps and bounds more harmful– in Europe, air pollution literally kills more than even “firsthand” smoke does. Yet, no one bats an eye at the daily aerial smorgasbord they face of car exhaust, factory fumes, smog, and heck, even methane originating from cow “emissions” they face on a daily basis, and only the most salient yet infinitesimal aspects of it.

Nevertheless, I don’t expect to change anyone’s mind, especially not with facts and statistics. This comes down to personal beliefs and preferences, more than anything else. I believe very strongly in two principles: “vote with your dollar,” and that the government should leave people in control of their own lives. For the former, support businesses if you support their practices, and businesses with universally unpopular practices will change, suffer, or eventually fail. For the latter, if people want to smoke, drink, drive fast cars, shoot guns, or whatever it is, give the freedom to both them and the relevant businesses to make their own decisions. The government should not play the role of moral arbiter in this respect, leading to endless circles of why is X regulated while Y isn’t?

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A poster from the 1970s about designated non-smoking times on the train platform.

It must be said, I don’t deny that smoking is bad for you. It certainly is. It definitely causes cancer. But secondhand smoke, the only reason people care about a ban in the first place, is not all that bad and has already been regulated to a place where most people never have to encounter it, and even when they do, it is not nearly enough to have any effect whatsoever. In fact, thanks to regulation, it is now more a minor annoyance than anything else. In the pursuit of nonsmokers’ freedom to breathe clean air, it has gotten to the point where they have that already, many times over, yet the march against people’s freedom of choice of what to do with their bodies continues. While you may argue that one should not have to deal with ANY negative effects of anyone else’s decisions, I believe that is just how it should be. I don’t expect the world to change to suit my needs and preferences. There are plenty of things *I* don’t like and secretly wish could be banned that I have to be around, but if having to is the cost of such freedom and independence for others and society at large, then I’d happily pay it twice over.

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