TOKYO • Patrons of Tokyo restaurants and bars were able to light up indoors for the last time yesterday as one of the world's most cigarette-friendly cities starts enforcing anti-smoking laws from today.
Japan lags behind many countries in its efforts to reduce tobacco usage, and the ban - only in the capital Tokyo - applies to traditional cigarettes, not so-called "heat not burn" devices for which Japan is the world's biggest market. E-cigarettes that use liquid nicotine are banned.
The smoking ban was part of Tokyo's preparations for the now-delayed 2020 Olympics, and covers establishments with hired employees, meaning many of the family-owned-and-operated bars and restaurants that the city is famous for are exempt.
It took two years for the ban to come into effect - Parliament approved the law in 2018, along with other national anti-smoking legislation - highlighting the hurdles that anti-smoking activists face in a country where the biggest tobacco maker, Japan Tobacco, is one-third owned by the government and its products provide substantial tax revenue.
"This year's law is still not sufficient," politician and anti-smoking campaigner Shigefumi Matsuzawa said. "We had to set many compromises in order for it to pass, so there are several loopholes."
Less than a fifth of Japanese still smoke, down from about half the population half a century ago.
Activists say second-hand smoke kills around 15,000 people a year in Japan, many of them women and children.
Mr Kenji Ogura, a senior vice-president at Japan Tobacco, said he expected the ban to have an impact on sales at a "certain level", but did not elaborate.
Japan Tobacco has been struggling to make its heated tobacco devices more popular than those by rival Philip Morris International, and last year cut its profit outlook for this financial year.
Smokers like 30-year-old Daiki Watanabe said the law would do little to change habits.
"Human will is a weak thing," he said. "I don't want to stop. If I am able to smoke, I will."
Several restaurants, worried about losing customers, have set up designated smoking areas.
"For customers who don't smoke, we have listened to their voices," said Mr Akihiro Funyuu, manager of a Tokyo izakaya, or bar.
"But here, we've created a smoking room to listen to the smokers' voices too."
Although the World Health Organisation has said tobacco users are likely to be more vulnerable to being infected by the coronavirus, smokers like Mr Ryo Okumura are not deterred.
"If I get the virus, I get the virus," he said. "I can't just stop. It's an indulgence."