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US Tobacco Co. Under Fire in Japan

April 28, 1998

NAGOYA, Japan (AP) _ Anti-smoking activist Akinori Ito is angry. While American cigarette makers face tough restrictions at home, he says they are making a killing selling their deadly products in Asia.

So Ito is doing something never done before in Japan: he’s suing a subsidiary of a U.S. tobacco company, cigarette giant Philip Morris Co.

The suit against Philip Morris _ the largest foreign-owned tobacco company in the country _ marks the opening of a new battlefront for Japan’s small but active movement against big tobacco.

The trial, which starts Thursday, is also part of a growing campaign among anti-tobacco lobbyists worldwide to impose domestic U.S. smoking limits on American tobacco companies’ burgeoning global marketing and sales.

``They can’t expand their sales much at home any more,″ said Ito. ``So they’re trying to sell more abroad instead, especially in Asia.″

Similar suits have been filed in Britain, France and Israel. All three countries are consulting with U.S. lawyers on strategy, and U.S. anti-smoking groups are working on ways to share evidence of health hazards to help suits filed internationally.

The Japanese case, filed in Nagoya, 170 miles west of Tokyo, makes an argument similar to smoking lawsuits in the United States: Cigarette companies know tobacco is harmful and should pay for the damage it causes.

Ito and 19 other activists are demanding that Philip Morris stop importing and selling tobacco in Japan, pay each of them a symbolic amount, about $770, and cover the cost of the trial.

Philip Morris, maker of the No. 1-selling Marlboro brand in the United States, refused to comment while the case is pending.

The lawsuit is the latest in a handful of cases over the past several years in Japan for tobacco-free workplaces, non-smoking areas in restaurants and damages for cigarette-related health problems.

But big tobacco is hardly under siege in Japan. The country’s largest producer, Japan Tobacco, has defeated three similar lawsuits over the past decade. Chances for this latest suit are equally slim.

Cigarette producers in Japan face few limits in advertising, and tobacco haze billows in coffeehouses and restaurants. More than half the men smoke _ the highest rate among developed nations.

``There’s not much awareness about the dangers of tobacco to smokers and non-smokers,″ said Bungaku Watanabe, head of the Tobacco Problems Information Center, an anti-smoking lobbying group in Tokyo.

Japan Tobacco, a former state-run monopoly that still controls nearly 80 percent of the estimated $35 billion smoking market here, is not much worried about the anti-smoking movement.

Spokesman Osamu Kamioka said the company is currently facing only four lawsuits _ nothing compared with the hundreds of suits that American tobacco sellers face in the United States. No local government has ever brought a case against the company, he said.

Kamioka said that in some ways, Japan is ahead of the West in limiting smoking. For example, cigarette sales to minors have been banned for 90 years, he said. Tobacco, however, is widely available at unmonitored vending machines.

``I hear that there are some states in America that didn’t have laws against minors’ smoking until very recently,″ Kamioka said.

Still, anti-smoking pressure is gradually yielding results in Japan.

On April 1, tobacco producers imposed a voluntary ban on TV cigarette commercials. Smokers in Japan are at a record low 34.6 percent.

Non-smoking tables are increasing in restaurants. And in homes, smokers who once would light up in the living room among children or pregnant women are increasingly being exiled to puff by the kitchen window.

The lawsuit follows a steady increase in foreign tobacco company market share in Japan since the business was liberalized in 1985. Foreign producers share about 22 percent of the market, with Philip Morris controlling 13 percent in 1997.

While Ito and other activists are opening a fight with American big tobacco, they also get their inspiration from the anti-tobacco movement in the United States, where cigarette companies have agreed to pay hundreds of billions of dollars to settle claims and avoid further lawsuits. Congress is now considering legislation to curb teen smoking that would cost producers $500 billion.

``In America, the tobacco companies have acknowledged the health damage caused by tobacco,″ said Shizuo Ito, the attorney for the activists. ``But then they sell cigarettes here in Japan _ isn’t something wrong with that?″

Japan’s anti-tobacco movement is not alone.

The World Health Organization is proposing a global tobacco-control treaty, and an international health conference in Beijing last year urged governments to make domestic tobacco settlements that take the world markets into account.

But the activists are fighting an uphill battle, in part, they say, because the tobacco industry is backed by the government. The powerful Finance Ministry owns two-thirds of the stock in Japan Tobacco, and taxes from cigarette sales provide a tidy source of funds for deficit-plagued bureaucrats.