Under pressure from increasingly draconian laws on smoking and a declining consumer base, Japanese tobacco firms are making the most of technology to produce new items that meet the tastes of consumers at the same time as staying within the law.

Japan Tobacco Inc, the largest cigarette company in the country, has announced that it plans to release a smokeless tobacco product called "Zerostyle Mint" in Tokyo in May.

The product resembles a regular cigarette but does not need to be lit and therefore emits no smoke, said the company, which claims it is the first product of its kind in the world.

The product uses a replaceable cartridge, which contains tobacco leaves and is fitted with a tapered mouthpiece and a removable cap. One cartridge enables a user to smoke for half a day.

Japan Tobacco has a long track record of developing niche products that are designed to meet the changing needs of the industry.

"While the majority of consumers in Japan are smoking cigarettes, demand is increasing for tobacco products designed to be used in places where consideration needs to be given to those nearby," the company said in a statement.

A study by the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare last November 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.

Those figures are expected to continue to decline as smoking becomes increasingly viewed as an anti-social habit. The ministry issued an instruction to prefectural governments across the country in February calling for greater efforts to introduce total bans on smoking in public places.

The areas identified included restaurants, hotels, train stations, hospitals, museums and department stores.

Hiroshi Kimura, president of Japan Tobacco, told reporters at the time that he hoped laws could be passed to provide smoking areas for anyone who still chose to smoke but did not want to affect others.

Clearly aware of the trend, British American Tobacco on March 15 announced that it was withdrawing an application to raise the price of its cigarette brands, a plan announced less then two weeks previously.

Japan Tobacco's new smokeless cigarettes will cost Y300 (€2.44) for a unit and two refill cartridges, with packs of four additional menthol-flavoured refill cartridges costing Y400 (€3.25).