Tokyo, Japan — This is an export-driven country that qualifies for the title of the “poorest rich society” in the world. It is a country with a booming gross national product that is forgetting about the welfare of its own people.
Consider, for example, the lethal triangle of cancer. Japan’s tobacco policy is one of promotion. Sixty one percent of men smoke here, compared with 29% in the U.S. The government likes this high level of smoking because the government owns the largest tobacco company which produces $13 billion a year in revenue for the state. The Japan Tobacco company spokesman, Kiyonori Kudo, declares: “Our position is that there is no pathological evidence definitely establishing smoking as a health hazard.”
The Ministry of Health took until 1907 to point out for the first time the connections between smoking and lung cancer, heart and respiratory disease and damage to fetuses. A year earlier, Watanabe Kozo, former Minister of Health, said that “smoking is the basis of health.”
Tobacco smoking is advertised on television; warning labels are ridiculously weak. The popular view that smoking helps workers to concentrate is still current, though declining.
When asked why Japan doesn’t go at least as far as the U.S. in a campaign to reduce smoking, a spokesman for the Ministry of Health replies that such controls “would be unworkable” in Japan. Why? “Because of the difficulties posed by the Ministry of Finance [which controls Japan Tobacco Ina”
So lung cancer rates continue to climb. And nearly 200,000 Japanese die from smoking-related diseases each year.
Next part of the triangle is the Japanese medical profession. Japanese doctors, many of whom smoke themselves, do not tell their patients when they have, cancer nor even if they are dying of cancer. Medical custom says; don’t upset them. Of course, the patients may want to decide whether they want to know or not. Many patients may want to take other courses of action or plan their remaining days differently.
The U.S. government is being anything but helpful. Washington sent trade lobbyists to Tokyo and in the interests of free trade got Japan to repeal its 20% tariff on imported cigarettes two years ago. With Reagan’s backing. American tobacco companies persuaded Tokyo to drop a proposed ban on television ads. Reaganites argued that with American consumers buying so many Sonys and Toyotas, the U.S. tobacco industry needed a freer hand to export tobacco, (or some would say cancer), to reduce the trade deficit between the two countries.
The third leg of the lethal triangle is the heavy promotion and sales of cancer insurance. Insurance expert, Robert Hunter, believes cancer insurance should not be allowed to be sold and several U.S. states agree with him. He argues that overall health insurance is a much better buy.
But in Japan, where the government promotes and profits from smoking and physicians keep patients in the dark about their cancers, sales of cancer insurance are very high. One wonders how the kin of cancer victims in Japan collect under their policies given this practice of non-notification by doctors.
To make matters worse, the Japanese government is very lenient toward the use of asbestos which in Japan is consumed at a level three times per capita greater than in the U.S. where the policy is to phase out use of this dangerous material. Smoking and breathing asbestos particles are a particularly deadly combination.
The only bright spot on the horizon is a growing consumer movement against smoking led by Watanabe Bungaku, director of ASH (Action on Smoking and Health). Using flamboyant techniques, dramatic posters and great energy, ASH’s leaders are making some headway. But they first need to take a Japan that is backward on consumer rights into the twentieth century before they acquire the tools for achieving their goals.