January 7, 2008 / 5:27 AM / 10 years ago

Tokyo taxis no longer a haven for smokers

TOKYO (Reuters) - Once smoker-friendly Japan got less sympathetic to tobacco lovers on Monday when a ban on lighting up in Tokyo taxis went into effect, part of a nationwide trend.

Two Tokyo taxi groups instituted the ban out of concern over lawsuits from drivers suffering the effects of second-hand smoke and in response to demands from passengers.

“There were lots of complaints from passengers about the smell,” said Tokyo Taxi Association spokesman Keiichi Sato.

Japan was once a haven for smokers but a growing number of municipalities and companies have banned smoking on the streets and at the workplace in recent years.

A Tokyo court in 2005 rejected drivers’ demands for compensation for health damage from second-hand smoke, but ruled that taxi operators should consider ways to protect drivers.

Some Tokyo smokers said they opposed the latest move.

“As a matter of free competition, I think there should be taxis where it’s OK to smoke,” said Masayuki Oda, a 41-year-old insurance company employee.

“Sometimes I used to catch a cab just to have a cigarette,” added the pack-a-day smoker.

Others, though, were resigned.

“It’s getting harder to find a place to smoke, but it can’t be helped. It’s bad for your health,” said Rie Owashi, 25, who works in a traditional “ryotei” Japanese restaurant, where she said once ubiquitous ashtrays are now supplied only on request.

For passengers who can’t hold out, Tokyo drivers will carry tiny portable ashtrays and pull over at a safe place to let their customers have a smoke, the Tokyo Taxi Association’s Sato said.

One 50-something taxi driver who confessed to a three-pack-a day habit said he’d cut late night riders a break.

“Late at night, many people have been drinking and want to smoke, so I’ll let them,” he said.

The proportion of Japanese adults who smoke has slipped to 26 percent from 34 percent a decade ago and a peak of 49 percent in 1966, Japan Tobacco said last October.

About half of Japan’s taxis are now smoke-free, Kyodo news agency reported, adding similar steps were planned elsewhere but faced passenger opposition in some places including the western metropolis of Osaka.

Reporting by Linda Sieg and Teruaki Ueno; editing by Sophie Hardach

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