Smoker Nation: Japan’s Tobacco Addiction
June 21, 2011 3 Comments
If you’re an avid smoker and absolutely love to light it up, Japan is the place to be. The average price of a pack of cigarettes, for instance, can range anywhere from 320 to 550 yen – a mere fraction of its cost in the rest of the industrialized world. Cigarettes can be purchased from vending machines, and non-smoking areas are few and far in between. It’s little wonder, then, that smoking is taken up by nearly three out of every ten Japanese, and is perceived by some to be a way to “relieve stress” in the hectic Japanese workplace.
Japan’s tobacco addiction, however, has had a devastating yet silent impact on the well-being of the nation and its people. According to the World Health Organization, one in every eight deaths in Japan can be attributed to smoking itself, and is the cause of up to four out of the five leading causes of deaths in the nation. 50 000 of said deaths were caused by lung cancer. Beside the emotional distress death and sickness inflict upon these individuals and their respective families, direct medical costs (inpatient and outpatient care, drugs, equipment); indirect morbidity costs and indirect mortality costs are putting an enormous burden on social security in Japan – a system already strained by the large (and growing) number of elderly in the country.
With the expense of reconstruction and its massive public debt already on its shoulders, whether Japan can afford to take on the cost of caring for the self-inflicted is already out of the question. Reducing the number of smokers in Japan will be an essential component in managing the country’s ongoing healthcare costs – the only concern that remains is how.
The easy answer to that question and the layman’s average response is taxes. In following the average layman’s train of thought, higher taxes would imply more expensive cigarettes, which would in turn exert a financial pressure on regular smokers to quit their increasingly expensive habit. Sounds logical, doesn’t it?
Forbes Magazine’s Reuven Brenner – a chair at McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management – disagrees, and tells the publication in this piece with what could possibly go wrong in imposing a heavy sin tax (on cigarettes and other tobacco products):
“Seventeen years ago I was asked to debate the issue of smoking in Quebec and specifically was asked why the imposition of taxes did not and could never be a solution. The large tax imposed at the time neither reduced smoking, increased government revenues or diminished smoking among the young. As is happening today, it led to a great deal of smuggling and the inevitable undesirable side-effects of such actions…taxes or no taxes, Canadians did not seem to change their smoking habits. Cigarette consumption gradually declined only 3.4%. The habit remained. And the numbers are similar today.”
Brenner, however, did offer a solution to the problem, and proposed taxing the habit of smoking instead of the tobacco products themselves.
“A carton of cigarettes might cost $20. But the difference between a smoker’s and a non-smoker’s medical insurance might be $2,000 a year or more. This would be a serious disincentive for smokers. And enforcement would be much more certain. And what about the teenagers, you may ask? The answer is easy: Tell them that if they smoke, they cannot drive. Most parents cannot pay both the additional $2,000 car-insurance fee for their thrill-seeking teenagers and higher fees for medical insurance. Better to give the teen-agers choices than orders. A 2008 poll in the U.S. by the Society for Human Resource Management revealed that only 5% of companies charge smokers more for health-care premiums. That’s surprising since this, combined with higher life and home insurance, would do the trick of reducing smokers.”
If the same were to be applied to Japan, Japan may see its first significant decrease in the number of smokers since it raised cigarette prices back in 2009. But is it possible? A 2007 article run by Al-Jazeera notes that it will be a difficult task:
“The (finance) ministry controls 50.2 per cent of Japan Tobacco, the world’s third biggest tobacco company, turning over a profit of nearly $3 bn a year. The anti-smoking lobby says the Japanese parliament is filled with MPs who have interests in the tobacco industry and that is why nothing is done. Sakuta says implementing a national law against smoking is vital, ‘but with 300 MPs out of 500 with interests in the tobacco industry, it is impossible’.”
Given the intertwined nature of government and industry in Japan, there anything that can be done to reduce the number of smokers? The answer to that question is yes, but is highly dependent on several factors. The government, its politicians and its constituents must realize the enormous financial burden smoking places on its healthcare system, and the cruciality of finding a solution in order to preserve Japan’s economic health. It must also build an effective anti-smoking policy that would incorporate higher premiums for smokers and reduce availability to the general public, yet make concessions to the tobacco industry to ensure its passage through the Diet. Whether it can be done or not remains a point of contention, but it’s an issue that cannot remain in the dark forever – one that must be resolved to ensure the solvency of social security programmes and the economic health of the Land of the Rising Sun.