There’s never been a better time to give up cigarettes.
I gave up smoking about eight years ago, and I often encourage other people to quit, too.
On April 1, Japan started enforcing new laws which prevent smoking in many public places. I welcome the legislation, even though it is limited in scope.
I know some people will try to get around the law by seeking out small bars and restaurants which continue to allow smoking. Or they may smoke out on the street or squeeze into segregated smoking rooms. To my mind, such behavior leaves them in a dangerous trap.
Here’s why I think every smoker in Japan should now end their relationship with tobacco, for good.
Smokers are More Likely to Die of Coronavirus
I admit the evidence on this is not yet definitive, but a number of scientific papers are circulating which suggest that if smokers become infected with COVID-19, they are more likely to succumb to serious, even life-threatening, symptoms.
For example, The New England Journal of Medicine recently carried out a large-scale study on COVID-19 patients in China. It found that smokers were around three times more likely to end up in intensive care unit wards, or require assisted breathing apparatus.
In the United Kingdom, the government’s chief medical adviser, Professor Chris Whitty, has said now would be a “very good moment” for people to quit smoking because it leads to “an additional vulnerability” in terms of coronavirus.
Smoking indoors was banned in the U.K. 12 years ago, but in Japan many people still use smoking rooms. These are among the very worst places to go if you want to avoid the coronavirus. How can you keep distance from people in a sealed, enclosed space? And because smokers are exhaling and inhaling, there’s a great risk that water particles which carry the virus will pass between them.
You Will Have More Chance for Romance
Have you noticed that a lot more men smoke in Japan than women? According to a survey by Japan Tobacco on Nippon.com, the percentage of male and female smokers in 2017 was, respectively, 28.2% and 9.0%. It’s a similar ratio in China and South Korea. And in North Korea around 45% of men are reported to smoke daily, while almost no women do!
There is a widely held view in Asia that women should protect their bodies so that they give birth to healthy children, and that’s a good principle to maintain at a time when Japan’s birth rate is falling.
Although many Japanese women may appear to tolerate their partner’s smoking, this is less true of the younger generation, who definitely don’t want their boyfriends to smoke. That leaves male smokers in a minority, facing discrimination.
They could complain about this and try to convince women to be more tolerant. Or they could raise their game romantically by quitting.
You’ll Save A Lot of Money
Let’s say that a person smokes 20 cigarettes each day, which is the average in Japan. That works out at ￥182,500 JPY ($1,675 USD) per year.
Although to my mind that’s a lot of money to waste, Japan’s cigarettes are relatively cheap — only about one third of the price in Britain. In Australia, a 20-a-day smoker can expect to spend $10,000 AUD on their habit annually. That’s around ￥655,000 JPY ($6,000 USD).
Cigarette packets in Australia, most of Europe, and even Thailand and Cambodia carry strong visual warnings. That’s not the case in Japan, where a complicated written message obscures the health risks. And no other country tolerates the lurid displays of cigarettes in convenience stores, which make cigarettes look like cheap, everyday treats, like candy.
You’ll Stop Enriching the Big Tobacco Companies
Japan Tobacco is one of the biggest tobacco companies in the world. In 2019, it made a profit of more than ￥500 billion JPY ($4.6 billion USD). It has great sway over the government, which still owns 33% of the business. Its products provide substantial tax revenue.
Activists complain that Japan Tobacco has been lobbying politicians against the partial smoking ban, and claim it funds some members of the Diet.
“This year’s law is still not sufficient,” politician and anti-smoking campaigner Shigefumi Matsuzawa told Reuters. “We had to make many compromises in order for it to pass, so there are several loopholes.”
One of the glaring loopholes is that the new laws are stricter in Tokyo than in other parts of Japan. Yet, in rural areas, with many elderly people, smoking places a great burden on the health system. Hospitals can ill afford to treat patients with conditions like heart disease, cancer, and emphysema caused by smoking when their healthcare budgets are being drained by the COVID-19 crisis.
You’ll Stop Shaming Japan
Japan has a reputation as a health-conscious and hygienic society, where people live long lives. Smoking tarnishes that image. It’s also one reason men’s life expectancy is shorter than that of women.
Most countries with high smoking rates are poorer than Japan. The World Health Organization says “around 80% of the 1.1 billion smokers worldwide live in low- and middle-income countries, where the burden of tobacco-related illness and death is heaviest.”
The partial ban on smoking indoors was part of Tokyo’s preparations for the now-delayed 2020 Olympics. It seems to have been agreed upon reluctantly to appease foreign visitors, rather than address a national problem.
Yet data compiled by the American Cancer Society finds that, every year, about 158,000 Japanese people are killed by diseases caused by smoking. Furthermore, second-hand smoke kills around 15,000 people a year, many of them women and children.
At a time of global health crisis, everyone needs to support the battle against coronavirus. But in terms of a danger to life, those statistics suggest that smoking will kill many more people in Japan this year than COVID-19.
I know it takes consistent effort to quit smoking. Some people will initially be sad to say goodbye to a drug which they thought was bringing them pleasure.
But we’re in a new era now and our old tobacco habit belongs in the past. Japan, it’s time to quit.
Author: Duncan Bartlett
Duncan Bartlett is a regular contributor to JAPAN Forward and the editor of Asian Affairs magazine. He also runs the news portal, Japan Story.