Gone in a puff: Japanese govt worker fined over $14.5k for taking 4,500 smoke breaks

A “No Smoking On The Streets” sign in Tokyo’s Chiyoda ward. ST PHOTO: WALTER SIM

While most health regulators say smoking kills, for government employees in Japan’s Osaka, smoking is also a costly vice.

A Japanese civil servant has smoked his wages away, having been hit with a fine worth around 1.44 million yen (S$14,700) after being found smoking on the job more than 4,500 times over 14 years.

The authorities in Osaka laid down the law on the 61-year-old employee, along with two colleagues in the prefecture’s finance department, last Monday by enforcing a 10 per cent pay cut for six months for repeatedly smoking during work hours despite multiple warnings.

The trio were first investigated in September 2022 after their human resource office received a tip-off regarding their misdemeanours, reported the Mainichi Shimbun.

They did not heed warnings from their supervisors and even lied about not smoking during a follow-up interview in December.

Of the three, the 61-year-old director-level employee was deemed to have violated the “duty of devotion” under the Local Public Service Act. He was asked to return 1.44 million yen of his salary, in addition to his disciplinary wage reduction.

The prefectural government found that he had clocked up 355 hours and 19 minutes of smoking on duty 4,512 times over 14½ years of his employment at the department.

Osaka has strict restrictions on smoking, having introduced a total ban in government premises such as offices and public schools in 2008. Government employees have also been banned from lighting up while on duty since 2019.

Some reaction towards the report has been sympathetic, with more than one online commenter acknowledging civil servant smokers would need to go off-site to a nearby building to take a puff, which would take up additional time.

Others found the fine harsh, saying time spent “drinking tea, eating sweets and chatting” could also add up to a huge amount when quantified in terms of an hourly wage.

In 2019, a high school teacher in Osaka was similarly disciplined with a temporary pay cut after he was found to have taken around 3,400 illicit smoke breaks. He was also asked to return one million yen of his salary to the education ministry.

The teacher was quoted by the school board as saying: “I couldn’t stop smoking even though I understood it was bad behaviour.“

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