Is Japan’s 2020 Olympic bid going up in smoke?

Visitors to Japan are often surprised to see the kind of cigarette advertising that has long been outlawed in most countries. Ads at sporting events, in particular, seem especially out of place.

At volleyball matches, which are a big deal in Japan, many of the fans are screaming teenage girls, but one tobacco company’s ads are as ubiquitous as the cute mascots, inflatable clappers and TV cameras that broadcast Japan’s games in prime time.

Japan Tobacco at FIVB

Japan Tobacco logo during FIVB World Cup of Volleyball in Tokyo

Though Japan has won nothing on the world stage since 1976, but finished fourth in women’s and 10th in men’s events this year, it has hosted the World Cup of Volleyball every four years since 1977, thanks in part to funding from sponsors such as Japan Tobacco.

Arenas are packed for Japan’s games, but empty — sometimes fewer than 100 fans — for higher-ranked teams from the United States, Italy, Brazil, Russia, China and elsewhere.

At this year’s event, Japan national team members wore a Japan Tobacco logo on their shoulders.

Japan, the United States and other nations played in front of court-side digital billboards that beamed the green JT mark to TV audiences in countries that ban any tobacco association with athletics.

Targeting fans

The JT logo was even found on free packages handed out to fans, including children, entering Yoyogi National Stadium. The package includes a pamphlet showing Japan Tobacco’s projects with young people and glossy brochures about JT’s national league teams, the JT Thunder and JT Marvelous, which feature Yoshie Takeshita, the idol of many schoolgirls, wearing the JT logo on her chest.

Japan Tobacco says it “abides by all laws and voluntary codes in Japan,” where 40 percent of males and 10 percent of females smoke.

“Nowhere in our corporate sponsorship of volleyball games do we advertise our cigarette brands or products,” the company said in an unsigned email.

Hiroshi Takeuchi, a veteran Kyodo News sportswriter and a press delegate for Japan’s national teams at recent Olympic Games, said in his position as chief World Cup press commissioner that Japan Tobacco is deemed a sponsor “in the beverage category” because it also has a division selling drinks.

Many smokers who come to Japan to enjoy cheaper cigarette prices and the freedom to light up in restaurants, bars, hotel rooms and playgrounds, also see nothing wrong with it since JT, whose stock value is up 30 percent this year, is pouring money into events that need funding.

But increasing numbers of sports travelers from oversea, and doctors in Japan and at the United Nations (UN), are fuming.

Broad condemnation

Dr. Manabu Sakuta, chairman of the Board of Directors of the Japan Society for Tobacco Control, which includes 2,500 doctors and 12 lawyers, calls it “complete nonsense.”

“It doesn’t matter if Japan Tobacco is doing various [kinds of] work,” he says. “Everybody knows that Japan Tobacco’s main business is tobacco. Their target is young females, and they sponsor volleyball because most young females are fond of volleyball.”

Japan’s Ministry of Health said in a report to the UN’s World Health Organization (WHO) in February 2010 that nearly 10 percent of boys and 5 percent of girls age 16 to 18 smoke.

The numbers rise to 42 and 14 percent for people in their 20s. Only 33 percent of Japanese men say they have never smoked. Researchers predict cancer rates will skyrocket in Japan in coming years, especially for women.

The WHO, based in Geneva, Switzerland, says that Japan is legally obliged to comply with a treaty it adopted in 2004 along with 173 other nations — the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which comprehensively bans all tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship everywhere, including at sporting events, says WHO press officer Timothy O’Leary.

Dr. Armando Peruga, program manager of the WHO’s Tobacco Free Initiative, said the WHO is contacting the Fédération International de Volleyball (FIVB), based in Lausanne, Switzerland), to “convey our disappointment at their actions and to remind them that in 2002 they publicly committed to have a tobacco-free sport.”

Peruga also said tobacco sponsorship is “ethically reprehensible because it pursues the promotion of a deadly drug that kills up to one half of its customers when used as manufacturers intend.

“Tobacco sponsorship further defines the irresponsibility of the sponsors, of those who take the money and those who make excuses under the illusion that a tobacco sponsor is a multi-product company.”

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