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Japan health ministry to water down proposal on restaurant smoking

Japan’s health ministry is likely to drastically water down a proposal restricting smoking in restaurants, media said on Friday, a move that risks Tokyo becoming one of the unhealthiest hosts of the Olympic Games hosts in years.

Japan ranks at the bottom globally in anti-smoking measures, going by the types of public spaces entirely free of smoke, says the World Health Organization, which has teamed up with global Olympics officials to guarantee smoke-free Games venues.

Ahead of the 2020 summer Olympics, the International Olympics Committee (IOC) is among those pressuring the Japanese capital to follow Rio de Janeiro and other recent games hosts in banning smoking in all public areas.

IOC Vice President John Coats has said the body cannot force a ban beyond the venues and the Olympic Village, however.

The Health Ministry was forced this year to scale back a proposed bill for a blanket ban on public smoking in the face of opposition by pro-smoking politicians, restaurateurs and Japan Tobacco, which is one-third government owned.

But even the weaker bill foundered, due to opposition from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). In August, anti-smoking Health Minister Yasuhisa Shiozaki lost his job in a cabinet reshuffle.

Now the ministry contemplates allowing smoking indoors at establishments that have a floor area of up to five times the 30 square metres (323 square feet) and adequate ventilation stipulated in the earlier bill, media said.

However, a health ministry official told Reuters the new proposal was still in such an early stage of discussion that none of its content had yet been decided.

Fifty years ago, around half of Japanese smoked, a figure that has shrunk to less than a fifth now. Smoking areas have been dramatically restricted, but laws vary among cities. There is still a cigarette vending machine in a Health Ministry annex.

Health officials say 15,000 Japanese die every year from second-hand smoke.

The new proposal is “terrible,” says anti-smoking activist Manabu Sakuta, since nearly 90 percent of food and beverage establishments in Tokyo are smaller than 150 square metres (180 sq yards).

But he is pinning his hopes on Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike, who vowed in July to push for a smoking ban before the Olympics.

“There’s some possibility here, so we’ll have to focus on that,” he said.

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