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Japan hits smokers where it hurts

An October price hike on cigarettes may lessen Japan's reputation as a smokers' paradise.

As conventional cigarette smoking declines, Japan Tobacco is hoping to expand its range of other forms of nicotine delivery, including the recently introduced Zero Style Mint, the world’s first smokeless cigarette.

“These will complement cigarettes, not replace them,” Yamamoto said.

Campaigners agree that the price hike is a step in the right direction, but doesn’t go nearly far enough. Even at 400 yen (about $4.60), a packet of cigarettes will still be about a third the price charged in Britain.

“We want a pack of cigarettes to cost at least 1,000 yen [about $11.50],” said Bungaku Watanabe, director of the Tobacco Problem Information Center in Tokyo. “Tobacco is still far too cheap in Japan.”

Watanabe says Japan’s reluctance to enforce smoking bans and raise prices to levels comparable with those in the United States or Britain stems from the finance ministry’s 50.2 percent stake in Japan Tobacco, which contributes about 1 trillion yen (about $11.5 billion) in tax revenue a year.

Close ties between bureaucrats, politicians and tobacco growers mean it is unlikely that Japan will consider another steep price rise or enforce widespread smoking bans.

“Japan must be the only country in the world where tobacco regulations are devised by the finance ministry,” said Watanabe. “That should be the job of the health ministry. Laws are not made with health concerns in mind, but to protect the tobacco industry.

“We want to turn Japan into a place where it is very difficult to buy a pack of cigarettes. But that is a long way off.”

As a smoker of eight years, Tomo Sekizawa acknowledges that it is getting harder to indulge his habit.

The 28-year-old Tokyo waiter can no longer take cigarette breaks at work and a ban on smoking on the street near his restaurant means he must escape during quiet moments to a smoking room several floors away.

“I think it’s a little too strict to ban smoking on the street, but then again I can see why some people object to smoking outside,” he said. “As long as there is a place for me to go, I can live with that.”

But he will not be among the smokers expected to consider quitting when the price hike is introduced: “I know the government is trying to make a point about the health dangers of smoking. But as long as the price stays below 500 yen [about $5.75], I have no intention of giving up.”