Wakeup Call: Japan’s Smoking Problem is Bad for Health, Worse for the Environment

 

As readers who have lived here for any length of time will recognize, Japan has been slow to introduce restrictions on smoking. For example, smoking in schools, offices, other buildings, station platforms, etc., was banned only in recent years. 

 

Similarly smoking in restaurants—the place most necessary to forbid it because of the displeasure it caused non-smokers when eating and the likeliness that children would be present—was not accomplished until April this year. That was a result of the Revised Health Promotion Law, in time for the (eventually postponed) Tokyo Olympics.

 

Such regulations should not be seen as restrictions on one’s lifestyles or pleasure (if you enjoy smoking) but instead as protections of those who do not want the effects of some activity or behavior to negatively impact them, especially in the area of health. 

 

 

Global Health Impacts of Smoking

 

I was raised in a household where my father smoked. He eventually died, at the age of 61, from the effects of emphysema likely caused by cigarette smoke. I was a senior in high school at the time. I hated the smell of the cigarettes and cigars he smoked and recall uncomfortably the misery, especially as a small child, of having a cold or stuffy nose and not being able to breathe whatsoever. No doubt my mother, siblings, and I have been the victims of second-hand smoke, although my father did his best to accommodate us.

 

This commentary is not about how bad cigarette smoke remains health-wise, but rather that Japan (and the world) has another smoking problem—that of garbage, adding to the plastics problem in oceans and waterways, and pollution in general.

 

 

Bad Manners, Toxic Residue

 

Most readers are aware that plastics, such as pet bottles, in the oceans are a major problem, not to mention the fact that the plastics have broken down into microsized pieces that aquatic animals digest (and then go into the food chain, eventually affecting humans as well). In fact, cigarette waste from butts or ends is considered by experts to be the world’s greatest litter problem. 

 

Around the world, cigarette butts make up approximately 38% of all litter, and in some developed countries, the percentage is actually higher, at 50%. 

 

One reason for this higher number is that as smokers get pushed outside of buildings and off premises altogether in Western countries, including Japan, there is a tendency for butts to be discarded wherever, and they end up into the streams, rivers, lakes, and elsewhere. Some 75% of smokers, for example, report admitting disposing them on the ground or from cars. No doubt readers have seen such a scene in their lives before. 

 

Smokers tend to be people with the worst manners—smoking without thinking of others around, smoking while walking, throwing their cigarette wrappers and cigarettes themselves on the ground or in drains, etc. (There are exceptions, of course—my father was one of those—but this generalization is unfortunately largely true, whether consciously or not.)

 

 

The Size of the Problem

 

Approximately 5.2-5.6 trillion cigarettes (of which approximately 90%, or 4.95 trillion, come with filters), are manufactured every year. (The National Geographic Society puts the number much higher at 6.5 trillion purchased.) 

 

The invention of the cigarette rolling machine at the end of the 1800s made cigarettes, already popular, easier to smoke and acquire, eventually surpassing cigars, pipes, snuff, and chewing tobacco as the number one way for people to get their nicotine fix. Cigarette use jumped 80 times between 1900 and 1960 alone. 

 

While easier to get, the mass production of cigarettes comes at a significant cost to society that non-smokers also pay for. Indeed ratio-wise (number of smokers to non-smokers), non-smokers pay more for the problems smokers cause than smokers do themselves.

 

Of the cigarettes sold, an amazing 4.3-4.5 trillion butts—defined as the remnants of the tobacco and/or filter—are reportedly tossed annually, damaging the environment, the health of others, and community finances for unnecessary clean-up costs. 

 

San Francisco, for example, spends $7.5 million USD on cigarette wasteーmoney, especially in this day and age we can all agree would be better spent elsewhere.

 

Because the filters, which are now made of plastic fibers (cellulose acetate) are so tightly packed, this amounts to an estimated 1.69 billion pounds of waste. 

 

 

Direct – and Indirect Health Impacts

 

Filters, some of which add charcoal, were portrayed as a health device over the years to reassure smokers that they were safer than unfiltered cigarettes (by filtering out some larger residues, tars, and particulates) and to deliver to them a less irritating smoke. But we now know sadly and ironically that they have had the opposite effect. 

 

Because the filtered cigarettes were less irritating, some smokers indulged more per day. Some even inhaled the “smoother” smoke more deeply, increasing the risk for adenocarcinoma (one of the most dangerous forms of cancer) of the lungs. Moreover, new smokers found filtered tobacco easier to enjoy. Even worse, the plastic fibers in the filter have been known to get into the airways of smokers. 

 

By the 1950s, filtered cigarettes were outselling unfiltered ones. Also, by this time, the U.S. Surgeon General had found and declared a causal link between smoking and lung cancer.

 

 

Poisoning the Environment

 

Filters are non-biodegradable and can take up to 12 years to disintegrate, usually in the sun or rain. However, the toxic material never disappears. The tobacco remnant is also toxic, but as an organic substance, it is able to biodegrade.

 

 

Cigarette butts leak toxic chemicals, such as lead, arsenic, and cadmium into the marine environment. And do so within 60 minutes of contact with water. 

 

These chemicals get into the waterways that we use and in which maritime animals live. They have been found to inhibit plant growth and thus further damage entire ecosystems. 

 

Their random disposal has been a problem for a couple of decades, but the problem is getting worse. The environment cannot continue to absorb this and all the other issues it is facing.

 

Other forms of environmental damage from tobacco include the use of tons of pesticides in tobacco growing and the destruction annually of 600 million trees for tobacco paper, packing (packs, cartons, and cardboard boxes), and/or as fuel used to dry tobacco leaves. This amounts to approximately 1 tree for every 6 felled going towards tobacco products.

 

Butts have been found in the stomachs of birds, fish, whales, and other marine animals, causing them to ingest hazardous chemicals, choke on the waste, or experience digestive blockages. In each of these cases, they will likely die. 

 

So poisonous are cigarette butts that ingesting them can be fatal for small children.

 

 

Time to Tax Users for Cleanup Costs

 

Japan, the land of heavy smokers, shares much of the blame for this situation. Although in recent years, numerous laws are in place regarding smoking, including on streets, once you leave those restricted areas you will find a large number of cigarette waste by the wayside. In general, the laws are far from enforced. 

 

RELATED ARTICLE: 5 Reasons Japan Should Quit Smoking

 

Butt waste does not include wrappers and boxes, which are also problematic. I go for daily walks in my neighborhood 40 minutes outside of Osaka in beautiful Hyogo Prefecture, and sadly come across all of the above—tobacco remnants, filters, plastic wrappers, and the box themselves—every single day.

 

 

I even recently came across a near full pack that had been inadvertently dropped on the road by construction workers building a home, probably as one of them was leaving for home. (I quickly disposed of the pack before some kids returning from school, club activities, or juku found it and sampled some of those apparently addictive and otherwise harmful tobacco products.) 

 

Often these butts are near drains, strategically discarded by the nicotine-fueled carrier on his way to work (almost always it is men I have seen do so). If done in my presence, I don’t hesitate to tell them to pick it up.

 

Of course, the immediate fault lies with the individual polluter. But the tobacco industry owns much of the blame too. It is certainly not practicing “producer responsibility” or “product stewardship” by any means. 

 

The pollution, based on the discoveries on my walks each day, is caused by all makers—there is not one brand singularly at fault. There is little to no effort by them on their packaging to discourage poi-sute (throwing by the wayside) other than a vague mark of the globe. In some communities in the United States, for example, such as San Francisco, a local tax of 60 cents had to be applied to handle cigarette waste.

 

Cigarettes in Japan, at about 490 yen (about $4.70 USD) a pack, are quite inexpensive, relatively speaking. 

 

I would like to see a national tax of 160 to 200 yen (about $1.50 to $1.90 USD) on them, at the minimum, to cover clean-up costs and promote education and treatment programs. In reality, the tax should be many times more than this for the burden placed on health care and the larger environment as a whole.  

 

Japan’s smoking problem has taken on a new dimension. It has gone from a nuisance to a significant health issue, and now has global implications as an emerging environmental disaster. If Japan wishes to be an environmental leader, it has much farther to go. Extinguish that cigarette and get to work, now. Oh, and dispose of that cancer stick properly. 

 

Author:  Robert D. Eldridge, PhD

 

Robert D. Eldridge, PhD

Author:

Dr. Robert D. Eldridge, is the Director, Northeast Asia, for the Global Risk Mitigation Foundation. He is also a senior fellow at the Japan Strategic Studies Forum in Tokyo, is the former political advisor for the United States Marine Corps in Japan and the author of dozens of books on U.S.-Japan relations, including, "The Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force: Search for Legitimacy" (Palgrave, 2017, co-edited with Paul Midford)

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