October 20, 2016

Thank you for not smoking (so much)

If you're a consumer of manga and anime, you will have noticed that Japanese smoke a lot, even in series aimed at kids (a big no-no in the U.S.) Why all the smokers? Because it accurately reflects real life in Japan. (There are cinematic reasons too.)

The highest per-capita smoking rates in the world are in Eastern Europe. The most enthusiastic smokers outside Eastern Europe are South Koreans, Kazakhs, and Japanese (with the U.S. in the middle of the pack). Japanese men, that is.

Everybody in Japan knows that smoking is bad for you. But it's practically a cultural institution. The situation has improved significantly since I first lived in Japan 35 years ago, when every public space was a scene straight out of a Hollywood classic.

Back when smoking was cool.

People actually pay attention to "No Smoking" signs now. Still, several factors have for a long time slowed the eradication of smoking as acceptable public behavior.

No longer just a "suggestion."

Until 1985 the tobacco industry in Japan was a government-run monopoly, putting the government in the self-defeating position of profiting from smoking at the same time it was supposed to be discouraging it (see also: state lotteries).

Strangely enough, for an equally long time the Japanese government has had less reason to worry about the public health implications: it's called the "Japanese smoking/lung cancer paradox."

Smokers in the U.S. have an increased lung cancer "odds ratio" of 40:1 (a long-term mortality rate of 30.4/100,000). In Japan it's only 6:1 (a long-term mortality rate of 17.4/100,000). That makes "smoking kills" a less compelling argument.

Many reasons have been hypothesized. As always, it comes down to environment (including diet) and genetics. The stomach cancer mortality rate in Japan is 13/100,000. In the U.S. it is 2/100,000. Different things kill different people differently.

Then again, within the firm social constraints of Japanese society thrives a broad streak of leave-me-alone libertarianism. The moral crusades that so stir our Victorian sensibilities rarely excite the same passions in Japan.

Certainly not to the extent of pretending in popular entertainment that people don't smoke as much as they really do.

But like I said, the situation is steadily improving. As in every post-industrial society, a graying population teaches the grave lesson that nobody lives forever. And so the mass media has become hugely focused on personal health issues.

Darwin wins in the end. This bad behavior will inevitably change the one sure way it always does: the smokers will all die out.

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# posted by Blogger Katherine Woodbury
10/20/2016 1:34 PM   
The highest per-capita smoking rates in the world are in Eastern Europe.

In the manga I read, the smokers are always very cool, the way health teachers in high school tried to tell us all that smokers weren't. More importantly, they are cool and sophisticated, like Europeans appear to be to Americans--rather than cool and bikers, like Americans appear to be to Americans (all the smokers I knew in high school were "cool" more in the latter than in the former sense). So the Hollywood classics analogy is perfect and reminds me in a round-about-way of the Connie Willis book where the hero editor ends up putting all the smoking BACK in the Hollywood classics. Just because something is bad for one is no reason to destroy art!