Smokers find haven on Tokyo's smoke-free streets

Increasingly unwelcome on the streets of Tokyo and in a growing number of cafes and restaurants throughout the city, smokers have a haven for their habit.

Cafe Tobacco actively encourages its patrons to light up, with a second outlet opening recently in the Yurakucho district for frustrated puffers.

Several districts in the Japanese capital have banned smoking in public places, including on streets, and are operating anti-smoking patrols that are empowered to levy on-the-spot fines.

The brainchild of Towa Food Service, which also operates a chain of conventional coffee shops, the first Cafe Tobacco opened in April close to JR Shimbashi Station - a hub for salarymen on their way to work or home at the end of the evening.

A sign at the entrance says people under the age of 20 are not permitted to enter the cafe, which has 44 seats and powerful extractor fans and smoke neutralizers on each of the three floors.

The cafe attracts around 600 customers every day, according to Towa Food, and even offers an original blend of coffee with a slightly bitter taste that apparently complements the smoking experience.

Not everyone is delighted with the appearance of cafes that promote smoking, however, with a spokesman for the health ministry suggesting that it is not in favor of companies marketing themselves on the basis of an unhealthy habit but that it is powerless to intervene.

Japan lags behind other countries in terms of legislation on tobacco. The only laws to have been passed at the national level to try to combat smoking involve making the health warnings on packets more prominent, while schools, hospitals, large stores and public facilities are meant to protect people from second-hand smoke, although there are no punishments for those that do not.

Nevertheless, the smoking rate in Japan is declining.

A study released in November by the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare showed that the smoking rate among men has fallen to 36.8 percent - the lowest level since such surveys were started in 1986 - while the figure for women came to 9.1 percent, below the 10 percent threshold for the first time since 2001.

Overall, the smoking rate stood at 21.8 percent, down sharply from 27.7 percent just five years ago.

JR

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