Towering billboards declare “Today I Smoke.” Diners light up in restaurants with toddlers bouncing on their laps. On TV, a rugged cowboy rides into the sunset, cigarette dangling from his lips.
In Japan, smoke is just about everywhere.
The tobacco industry may be under siege in the United States. But in Japan, aggressive advertising, a big government stake in the business and general acceptance of smoking keep the cigarette trade thriving.
“There are so many factors that encourage young people to smoke,” said Bungaku Watanabe, head of the Tobacco Problems Information Center, an anti-tobacco lobbying group.
Anti-smoking efforts are having some effect, chipping away at the percentage of the population who smokes and bringing some novelties, such as no-smoking sections in restaurants and train stations.
But Japan, like much of Asia, is still a smoker’s haven. According to the country’s major tobacco company, Japan Tobacco, more than 50 percent of adult men are smokers - the highest rate among developed nations. Including women, 35 percent of all adults smoke - compared with about 25 percent in the United States.
Japan also is a tobacco producer’s paradise. Cigarettes can be sold in vending machines on every corner; companies advertise on late-night television and billboards; only a mild health warning is required on packages.
Critics say a major reason for the popularity of tobacco - and the lack of restrictions against it - is that the government owns two-thirds of the stock in Japan Tobacco, which controls nearly 80 percent of the cigarette market.
Foreign companies, mostly American, account for the remaining 20 percent of sales, but their hold has been increasing since the tobacco business was liberalized in the mid-1980s.
With such a large stake in an estimated $35 billion-a-year business, the government hardly can be counted on to crack down on the industry, anti-tobacco activists say.
“The fact the Japanese government owns such stocks is a problem,” Watanabe said.
The government counters that it is doing its part to discourage smoking. The Health and Welfare Ministry included a special section on smoking in its annual report for the first time this year, clearly linking tobacco to cancer and other diseases.
The ministry also rang the alarm bell for Japan’s younger smokers, saying a survey found 20 percent of high school and junior high school students had smoked in the past year.
“For both women and men, the younger they are, the more they smoke,” the report said, warning of a “remarkable increase” in the number of women in their 20s who smoke.
The report said the government is pushing for more restrictions on smoking in work places and public buildings. Smoking is already banned on subways, and smokers must huddle in specially marked areas in stations for a puff.
Japan Tobacco, however, argues cigarettes have their benefits.
“We do acknowledge some health risk caused by smoking, but we also think it offers some psychologically positive effects,” said Seiichi Murata, a company spokesman.
Worries about cigarette smoke have yet to penetrate Japanese society, where lighting up whenever and wherever is taken for granted. Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto - a former health minister - is an unabashed chain-smoker.
When asked about the restrictions proposed by American tobacco companies in their battle with anti-cigarette lawsuits in the United States, Japan Tobacco’s president, Masaru Mizumo, told the newspaper Nikkei Keizai recently that Japanese and Americans have “different ideas” about smoking.
Some smokers say they are aware of the health risks, but they also face significant hurdles when trying to quit.
Yukako Akutagawa, who started smoking five years ago at age 17, said the influence of smoking friends helped start her habit - and the constant onslaught of media images of cigarettes has helped keep it going.
“When I watch TV shows and people are smoking, it makes me feel like having a cigarette,” she said, stubbing out a smoke over a glass of iced coffee at a Tokyo cafe.
Still, compared to some other Asian countries - in the Philippines, for instance, 73 percent of adults and half the children ages 7-17 smoke - Japan is making strides.
The percentage of people who smoke in Japan is down sharply from 1966, when a Japan Tobacco survey said nearly half of all Japanese adults smoked.
And some Japanese say younger nonsmokers are getting bolder about complaining about second-hand smoke in the work place.
Hairdresser Tadashi Kaga had to take refuge on the street outside his shop for a smoke one recent afternoon.
“I’m the only one who smokes in there and they all hate it,” said Kaga, who smokes three packs a day. “I’m miserable.”
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: SOME FACTS ON SMOKING IN ASIA: JAPAN: 35 percent of adults smoke. Former state-run company, Japan Tobacco, controls 80 percent of market. Cigarette ads permitted for television, billboards and sports events. PHILIPPINES: 73 percent of adults and more than half of children ages 7 to 17 smoke. Tobacco cultivation major industry. Government campaigning against tobacco, but attempts to curb advertising have failed. CHINA: 70 percent of men smoke. National monopoly controls production; foreign companies have only 4 percent of market. Restrictions on smoking spreading. HONG KONG: 14 percent of people smoke. Nearly all schools, government buildings, public transport smoke-free. Anti-smoking movement strong. MALAYSIA: 41 percent of men, 4 percent of women smoke; rate increasing about 2 percent a year. Direct advertising on radio, TV and movies banned. Tobacco business private. THAILAND: 19 percent of people smoke, with growing number of younger users. Domestic monopoly controls tobacco sales; legal imports account for only 3.5 percent of market. Near-total ban on advertising. SINGAPORE: 18 percent of people smoke; rate among 18- and 19-year-olds has risen from 5 percent to 15 percent since 1987. Advertising banned. Government wants to make Singapore first smoke-free nation.