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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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Tobacco market feels the heat

Jul. 24, 2017

It's 3 years to go until Tokyo hosts the summer Olympics, and smoking is a big issue. The World Health Organization and the International Olympic Committee have pushed for indoor smoking bans at Olympic venues.

All host countries since 2008 have implemented a complete, or at least a limited, indoor smoking ban. But no restrictions to puff indoors have been carried out in Japan yet.

Japan is the world's 5th-biggest tobacco market, even though the number of smokers keeps falling. Tobacco companies have launched smokeless cigarettes in the country's market. They say these cigarettes are less harmful to health. But critics have doubts.

Heat cigarettes don't use fire. An electric device heats a stick containing tobacco leaves to 300 degrees Celsius. It produces no smoke, only vapor.

Three companies are now selling heat cigarettes in Tokyo. They see them as the wave of the future.

"The vapor contains just 10% of the harmful elements found in smoke from ordinary cigarettes. We're planning to stop selling cigarettes and replace them with other products with lower health risks in the future," says Philip Morris Japan Communications Manager, Ran Koike.

Heat cigarettes are catching on with smokers. They now account for 10% of tobacco sales in Japan.

"Since they don't smell, I can smoke in my room and my clothes don't get smoky. It's less stressful," says a smoker.

"They say heat cigarettes don't have any tar, so I guess they aren't so bad for your health," says another.

But some experts don't buy that.

"Just because they don't emit smoke, doesn't mean heat cigarettes are harmless. They contain nicotine and other substances found in tobacco, because they're also made from tobacco leaves," says Japan Society for Tobacco Control Secretary General, Kyoichi Miyazaki.

Regulating these newcomers to the tobacco market is proving tricky. Municipalities in Tokyo are split on how to treat heated cigarettes. Many of its 23 wards have smoking restrictions on the streets.

In Chiyoda ward, smoking these new types of cigarettes on the street is banned like any other tobacco products. If authorities find you with a heat stick, you're violating ward regulations. But in neighboring Minato Ward, officials don't recognize the heated smoking devices as cigarettes, which means they`re not restricted.

The situations in these neighboring wards show authorities' indecision on how to treat these new smoking products. An official at Tokyo's Minato Ward office explains why heat cigarettes are treated differently.

"The rules were established in 2014. At that time, heat cigarettes had yet to become popular. Inconvenience caused by smoking has generally meant things like passive smoking or accidentally being touched by someone's burning cigarette. That's why heat cigarettes aren't covered by our regulations."

Smoking heat cigarettes on the street is banned in only 7 of central Tokyo's 23 wards. On top of that, any type of cigarette can be smoked indoors in the capital -- there are no legal restrictions.

Tokyo hopes to clamp down on smoking in public places before the 2020 Olympic Games. But with local authorities divided even on how to regulate heat cigarettes, that may go up in smoke.

Newsroom Tokyo's Yuko Fukushima joins anchors Hideki Nakayama and Aki Shibuya in the studio.

Shibuya: It looks like there's a lot of confusion about how to deal with heat cigarettes.

Fukushima: Yes. The market for them has grown too fast for regulators to keep up. In most countries, when people talk about smokeless cigarettes, they mean electric cigarettes that use liquid nicotine.

But here in Japan, there are legal restrictions on that kind of cigarette. That led one tobacco company to begin selling heat cigarettes in this country 3 years ago. I should point out that Japan is the world's biggest market for them.

Japan accounted for 96% of all the heat cigarettes sold in the world last year, so there are no other countries whose experience we can draw on when it comes to figuring out how to regulate them.

Nakayama: Is anyone here in Japan trying to come up with regulations concerning heat cigarettes?

Fukushima: Well, that's a real can of worms. The central government recently tried to revise the law on indoor smoking. But that had to be postponed because of resistance from vested interests.

So far, the government hasn't taken a position on heat cigarettes. Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike is trying to get a jump on the central government. She's thinking of introducing new regulations regarding indoor smoking. But it remains to be seen whether heat cigarettes will be included the regulation.