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While tobacco control policy often develops incrementally, progress occasionally arrives with a “tipping point” dynamic. After seemingly fruitless years of administrative petitions, lawsuits and public protest, the quick uptake of smoke-free taxi rules in Japan from 3% to over 50% in a mere 16 months represents a great leap forward. Advocates have achieved stunning results as this enhancement for clean air for passengers will vitally protect the workplace health of well over 100 000 taxi drivers.
The change began quietly when the taxi association in Oita, a small prefectural capital on Japan's southern island of Kyushu with a substantial tourism economy, implemented Japan’s first smoke-free taxi rules for its 980 vehicles in April 2006, adding an additional 180 taxis in the prefecture’s outlying areas in September 2006. Then, after May 2007, when Nagoya’s taxi association proved this could work for 8000 taxis in the country’s fourth largest city, Kanagawa prefecture including Yokohama and Kawasaki, Japan’s second and ninth largest cities, and eight other prefectures rapidly joined in. The crown jewel was put in place in August 2007 when the city and metro region taxi associations of the capital, Tokyo, announced smoke-free rules scheduled for implementation in January 2008.
Important tasks remain. Taxi regulation has come about by local industry self-regulation, attributed to customer demand more than to public health, due to smoke left in too many cabs throughout Japan. Also, while progress is materialising from an advisory national law and market-driven private sector policies, countless workplaces in Japan still lack any clean air protection. When it comes to tobacco smoke pollution, Japan's governmental authorities remain stubbornly on the sidelines, avoiding the enactment of mandatory and comprehensive clean indoor air laws contemplated by Article 8 of the World Health Organization's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control and its implementation guidelines.
The 16-month rise from 3% to 50% of taxis being smoke-free reveals how a popular tobacco control policy can emerge in Japan, even in a sector which, aside from smoke-free banners flown over a mere handful of vehicles, had seemed impervious to change. It shows that clean air policies are economically viable and that they can be implemented with high levels of compliance. Clearly, the Japanese public is ready. With the taxi example as a guide, decision makers in both the public and private sectors should step forward to give the public more of what it wants and deserves.