Heating Up—The Battle between Smoking and Vaping in Japan

Heating Up—The Battle between Smoking and Vaping in Japan

In the land of Japan Tobacco, is the smoky air clearing at last? Japan’s cities and office buildings have been gradually squeezing smokers into smaller confines, forbidding puffing away while walking on the street and creating smoking rooms that serve as havens and isolation booths for tobacco fans. Much of the impetus for this drive—particularly in Tokyo—is the coming of the Olympics and Paralympics in 2020.

However, anyone that lives in Japan will tell you this is no mean task. While many of Japan’s hundreds of thousands of restaurants provide smoking and nonsmoking sections, for example, the barrier is merely theoretical, not physical, and smoke wafts freely between the two. Japan’s ubiquitous convenience stores often set large ashtray stands outside their doors, giving smokers a place to congregate. Pachinko parlors also seem inviolate, by the way—they’re just as loud and smoky as ever.

And yet while over 20 percent of people in the country still light up, including 28 percent of men, some recent developments have left many breathless:

— Japan Tobacco’s sales of conventional cigarettes dropped 11.4 percent between January and November of 2018.

— In March, major restaurant chain operator Skylark announced that it plans to ban smoking at all 3200 locations from September 2019.

— Telecom giant Softbank is gradually imposing a smoking ban on employees during working hours.

— A marketing firm called Piala just gave its nonsmoking employees six extra vacation days to compensate them for the smoke breaks employees that light up take.

— Nagasaki University in Kyushu announced in late April 2019 that it would no longer hire professors who smoke.

The new smoke(less) shows

E-cigarettes for vaping and what are known as heat-not-burn (HNB) products or activated tobacco are now competing for the lips, lungs, hearts and minds of Japanese smokers.

While around forty other markets such as Hong Kong, Australia and Mexico have banned vaping, citing health concerns, youth and “at-risk” populations, it’s legal in Japan. E-cigs sell from outposts with airy, fanciful names like Vape Village and Vaping Ape. A primary attraction for vapers is the dizzying number of flavors of “e-juice” they can load into their devices. According to fans, fruity menthol essences such as Mega Muscat—made by a company called Snowfreaks—have the greatest appeal in Japan. Traditional local tastes such as Bi-So’s Sakura Tea and Dorayaki (the latter is like sweet bean jam pancakes) face off against the green tea essence of Kyoto Matcha and Kishu Ume (think umeshu, or plum wine) by Fusion Juice. Bi-So also makes an Italian pizza-flavored e-juice.

Nicotine fiends looking for an alternative hit in vaping will be disappointed, however, because nicotine-infused e-juice is not sold in Japan at this time. Strictly speaking, in fact, nicotine e-juice is illegal, but the truly addicted will find overseas brands such as Apollo E-Cigs and Freeman Vape Juice do ship the e-liquid abroad.

Vaping had the initial jump on Japan’s smoking alternative market until a TV show called Ame Talk devoted an hour in April 2016 to the IQOS system of tobacco giant Philip Morris International (PMI), and IQOS devices began to dominate. PMI has opened dedicated stores to market its heated tobacco IQOS system. While government purveyor Japan Tobacco still dominates the traditional cigarette market with a 60 percent share, its Ploom Tech devices are lagging way behind in the HNB space at just 8.1 percent, as of last year trailing both Philip Morris’s IQOS (at 81.7 percent) and British American Tobacco’s glo (20.1 percent).

Vaping is still going strong, as evidenced by the second Vaping Expo Japan this coming May 23 to 25 at Chiba’s Makuhari Messe exhibition hall. Last year’s event, held in Osaka, drew 110 exhibitors and over 4500 visitors, including distributors, retailers, duty free shops, industry media reps and buyers. Trendy vaping bars such as Beyond Vape Japan are appearing to give vape fans places to gather and socialize. They may even discuss a robust study by Britain’s National Institute for Health Research done by researchers from Queen Mary University of London that says e-cigarettes are almost twice as effective at helping smokers quit as nicotine replacement treatments such as patches, lozenges and gum.

Are these delivery systems any safer for the people using them, or for those around them? A widely touted figure for IQOS was that heating the tobacco was 90 to 95 percent less harmful. That was persuasive to many smokers looking for a healthier alternative to their habit.

A Reuters report in 2017 disputed that, however, saying there were issues during the testing phase and no reliable evidence supported such claims. In February 2019, a study released through the European Lung Foundation reported that vaping and HNB devices were just as lethal as lighting up old-fashioned tobacco. Researchers found that all three nicotine sources damage two types of lung cells at high concentrations, while both HNB tobacco and the traditional kind were highly toxic to these cells even at low concentrations.

As for vaping, although e-cigarettes do not produce smoke, their vapor is not harmless. The aerosol from e-cigarettes contains many potentially harmful chemicals, such as lead and other heavy metals. Flavorings such as diacetyl, which has been linked to lung disease, are also problematic. Vaping is also—let’s face it—addictive if there’s nicotine involved.

The war over secondhand smoke

Will the new Health Promotion Law that takes effect in April 2020 change anything about the situation? The updated regulation reportedly will ban smoking indoors at schools, hospitals and government offices within eighteen months of its passage—but continue to allow smoking spaces on the premises of schools and hospitals. HNB users, by the way, will be permitted to dine and drink in ventilated smoking rooms as well. Existing small cafés, bars and restaurants not owned by large companies get a moratorium period, however, and an estimated 55 percent of eateries nationwide may end up being exempt.

Meanwhile, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government enacted its own much stricter ordinance to regulate smoking, banning smoking even outside the buildings of daycare centers and elementary, middle and high schools. It also prohibits smoking at cafés, bars, and restaurants that employ workers regardless of the seating space area.

The current regulations do not really address vaping or HNB products, so that fight is still to come once more evidence of the potential for harm is gathered.

One thing is certain: For anyone marketing e-juice or products related to looking stylish in the handling or storage of these new alternatives to smoking, Japan is a market to investigate.

Title image licensed under CC 2.0 by Adam Chamness.

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