I was shopping in Shinjuku Saturday when I saw them: the Butt Police. No, I’m not talking about a new adult attraction in Kabukicho. I’m referring to the small brigade of officers sworn to rid the streets of smokers and their castaway cigarettes.
Cool and efficient, the Butt Police were handsomely dressed in white uniforms and blue caps. Marching single-file through the neighborhood, the BP’s cast wary eyes for unsuspecting offenders. Anyone caught lighting up or tossing a cigarette onto the sidewalk would be issued an immediate citation.
I enjoyed watching the BP’s in action—until I stopped to think about what they were doing. Then they made me sad. What’s the problem with a quick cig on the sidewalk? I’m not a smoker, but people smoking on the street have never bothered me. Nor has anyone ever blown smoke in my face. After all, it’s outdoors and the smoke usually blows away in the wind. How much of a threat is that?
It’s not a threat and that’s why I think the Butt Police are sad. They are a typical Japanese band-aid solution: fight the symptom rather than the disease.
Tokyo is one of the few major cities in the industrialized world where smoking is permitted in bars and restaurants. Most cities in Canada and the U.S. banned smoking from restaurants and pubs some time ago. But here, one can visit almost any eatery or watering hole and see smokers puffing away.
Sure, many Tokyo establishments have separate sections for smokers and nonsmokers. But normally, nonsmokers get a few cursory seats while smokers enjoy entire sections to themselves. A good example is the Doutor coffee shop near Ebisu station. It has only five stools for nonsmokers, crammed near the cash register. Upstairs, smokers have an entire room to relax and light up. The McDonald’s near Fussa station has partitions separating smoking and nonsmoking sections. But huge gaps make the partitions mostly useless.
The McDonald’s in Kotesashi, Saitama, is perhaps the most annoying. The smoking section is in an open area on the ground floor, and the nonsmoking section is directly above. But with no barrier between the two floors, smoke freely rises to the top. Don’t these people understand basic science?
Segregating smokers from nonsmokers doesn’t work anyway. Studies show that walls and partitions do little to limit the exposure to secondhand smoke. In fact, researchers in Australia found that even with partitions between sections, about 50 percent of smoke still reaches nonsmoking areas.
And of course, the dangers of secondhand smoke are well-documented. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says secondhand smoke contains at least 60 chemicals known or thought to cause cancer. In all, tobacco smoke contains about 4,000 chemicals.
So if restaurants were serious about ensuring the safety of their patrons or staff, they would get rid of smoking completely. The Butt Police could move indoors and hand out citations to restaurant owners instead of smokers.
But perhaps public safety isn’t the issue. Maybe the real goal of the Butt Police is to protect the sidewalk rather than the people who use it. Cracking down on litter is easier than taking the anti-smoking battle indoors, where one would face Big Tobacco and their lobbyists and apologists in the Japanese government.
To be fair, tobacco taxes are being raised this fall, for the second consecutive year. But cigarettes here still cost much less than they do in the U.S. and many other countries. And the Japanese government is still a major shareholder in Japan Tobacco, one of the largest cigarette companies in the world. So don’t expect a serious crackdown anytime soon.
The bottom line is that appearances matter in Japan, and band-aid solutions are plentiful. So smokers, pick up those butts off the street and don’t light up outside—the Butt Police are watching. Instead, take your nicotine habits indoors, into any restaurant, bar or pub and smoke to you heart’s content.
Mike DeJong is a Canadian journalist and media consultant.
This commentary originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).© Japan Today