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Tobacco control efforts in Japan have lagged other high income countries, possibly because the Japanese government partially owns Japan Tobacco, Inc. In Japan, tobacco use is still often regarded as an issue of manners rather than an issue of health. Information about tobacco is available, but may not always be accurate. We explored what information Japanese consumers might access by reading popular Japanese books about tobacco.
We searched Amazon.com Japan using the term "Tobacco", identifying the top 12 books by "relevance" and "bestselling." We eliminated duplicates and books not concerned with tobacco use and classified the remaining books as pro-smoking, anti-smoking, or neutral. We reviewed the pro-smoking books, published 2004-2009, and analyzed examples of misinformation by theme.
Pro-smoking popular books conveyed five types of misinformation: doubt about science; suggestions that smoking increased health, longevity, virility, etc.; trivializing tobacco's effects; attacking public health advocates/authorities; and linking tobacco use with authenticity, history, or civil rights. At least one book was authored by a former Japan Tobacco employee; another used a popular Japan Tobacco advertising phrase.
Creating doubt and confusion about tobacco serves tobacco industry interests and re-creates a strategy developed by US tobacco interests more than 40 years ago. Japanese readers may be misled by texts such as those reviewed. Tobacco control and public health advocates in Japan and globally should expose and counter such misinformation. "Naming and shaming" may be effective.
Since it is established that smoking tobacco causes disease [1,2], and the landmark Japanese study showing that secondhand smoke (SHS) causes disease in nonsmokers was published almost 30 years ago , it is surprising that tobacco use in Japan remains so widespread that the country has been called a smokers' paradise . Although nationally, smoking rates have continued dropping , 39.4% of Japanese men and 11.0% of Japanese women still smoke , and 24% of health professionals are smokers, compared with 4% overall among U.S. health professionals . Tobacco control efforts in Japan lag many other countries, possibly because the Japanese government is the majority owner of Japan Tobacco, Inc. (JT) . Given an absence until recently of effective central government action, it is unclear why smoking has dropped, but rates are still higher than those in many higher-income countries.
The Tobacco Industries Act protects JT's business; the government is required to retain least 50% of JT's stock [8,9]. While the government seeks to profit from tobacco sales, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare (MHLW) is concerned with protecting health. The government, then, is conflicted; the result has been (until very recently) "a wordless annihilation of much meaningful tobacco control program development at the national government level [9,10]."
The social and informational context in Japan means that tobacco use is still often regarded more as an issue of good manners than a health threat [10,11]. Information about tobacco is available from many sources, but may not always be complete or accurate. Because popular books are a way to gain information about any topic, and the website Amazon.com has become a common way to identify and order books, we examined books available on the Japanese Amazon.com website to appraise their messages about tobacco.
In July 2009, we searched for books using the keyword "Tobacco" (たばこ) on Amazon Japan (amazon.co.jp). We compared the top 12 books sorted by "relevance" and the top 12 by "bestselling". (The website provides no definition of "relevance" or "bestselling.") After eliminating duplicates, the remaining 19 books were purchased and reviewed by the first author, a native Japanese speaker. Two books were excluded because they did not discuss smoking, even though the word tobacco was in the title. The remaining books were classified as pro-smoking, anti-smoking, or neutral. A pro-smoking book was defined as any book generally supporting smoking cigarettes, or challenging the idea that smoking was unhealthy. An anti-smoking book was defined as emphasizing that smoking was unhealthy. Neutral books covered the history of tobacco and/or did not take a position on smoking.
Pro-smoking books were reviewed for content and broadly representative excerpts selected, focusing on examples of misinformation about smoking. Draft English translations were prepared by the first author and reviewed and categorized by both authors. A consultant who majored in teaching Japanese and frequently speaks English and Japanese checked and refined the draft translations by comparing them against the original Japanese in the books. Examples were summarized by theme to illustrate the types of misinformation a Japanese reader might encounter.
We examined a small number of books, which may not be representative of the population of books actually read by Japanese citizens interested in tobacco. Other search terms might retrieve a different set of books. Lists change; we do not know how often they are updated or how long these books remained listed. Nevertheless, it seems reasonable that someone not yet knowledgeable about tobacco might search using this word, and that these would be books most likely to be seen (and in the case of bestsellers, purchased) by Amazon's Japanese users.
We were unable to do a similar study examining in detail books on the Amazon site in other countries, but on Feb 18 2010, we examined the top 12 books by bestselling and relevance on the United States Amazon site, searching using the word "tobacco." Examining titles and descriptions of the books, we found only two of 24 unique listed books that appeared pro-smoking: a guide to cigars, #9 by bestselling, and the book The health benefits of tobacco, by William Campbell Douglass, #3 on the relevance list. Dr. Douglass is a well-known 'maverick' who apparently makes a living claiming to debunk so-called health and medical 'myths' (generally without offering scientific evidence for his claims) and selling books and supplements online. He also claims the Internal Revenue Service is unconstitutional and apparently has argued that paying taxes is treasonous because, he claims, there are communists in the government . In any case, the U.S. site appeared to feature a far smaller proportion of books with misleading material than appeared on the Japanese version of the site. Selected quotations, while broadly representative of book content, were not randomly chosen, but were selected to illustrate misinformation conveyed. We did not have access to reader data, so we can only theorize about how reading these books might influence smoking beliefs and behaviors.
Of the 17 books, 9 were pro-smoking, 7 anti-smoking, and 1 neutral. By relevance, 7 of the top 12 books (58%) were pro-smoking, as were 4 of the top 12 (36%) bestsellers. Of 7 pro-smoking books on the relevance list, two were also bestsellers. All anti-smoking books on the relevance list mentioned how tobacco companies manipulated the public. No smoking cessation books appeared on the relevance list; 4 of 6 anti-smoking books on the bestselling list focused on cessation.
Nine pro-smoking books were reviewed. We sampled material from five of these (Table (Table1)1) to illustrate the types of misinformation conveyed. Among the other four pro-tobacco books reviewed, one was a guide to cigars, one was a pictorial history of tobacco packaging, and two were graphic cartoon books about smokers' manners, published by Japan Tobacco, Inc. [13-16]. The latter used stylized cartoons to suggest, among other things, that smokers should buy cigarettes and portable ashtrays before going to summer festivals, or take a break by smoking after perspiring while dancing, and appeared intended to reinforce smoking as a normal part of social events, while minimizing social conflicts .
The 5 books excerpted were all published since 2006; all authors noted that they were smokers and books featured similar content. While suggesting that smoking cigarettes was not harmless, they put far greater emphasis on the social goods of smoking, arguing that tobacco was not harmful enough to require regulation. They emphasized Japan's long life expectancies compared to other industrialized countries despite Japan's higher smoking rates, ignoring likely contributions of the Japanese diet and other factors to this phenomenon. The books suggested that little scientific data proved that tobacco was harmful, and that other substances were worse.
The authors consistently portrayed smoking as a personal "choice" or preference, an issue of "rights" and "freedom," and said government should not get involved. If there was a tobacco problem, according to these authors, it was smokers' manners, not the product. They also linked smoking with Native American peacemaking ceremonies. Some of their assertions exactly match JT's claims [17,18], such as blaming smokers' manners for any problems. It is unknown whether tobacco companies sponsored these publications.
Below, we provide brief descriptions of the five pro-smoking books reviewed:
This pro-smoking book by Takeda, second by relevance and 18th among bestsellers, argued that SHS effects on nonsmokers were exaggerated. The author worked for Japan Tobacco until 1995; his argument echoes JT's SHS claims . He also claimed, without citing evidence: "it is clear that elderly people in nursing homes who love to smoke live much longer" (p. 153).
Oncologist Haruhiko Natori and sociologist Masayuki Uesugi coauthored this book, 7th by relevance and 16th among bestselling. Among other things, it sought to convince readers that tobacco was not harmful by equating smoking with other behavior that might harm human health too, such as accidentally inhaling peanuts. Use of JT's well-known advertising phrase, "I feel great, and cigarettes taste great!" ("今日も元気だ、たばこがうまい") suggested a JT connection.
Fumiaki Matsugae, lawyer and journalist, authored this book, ninth by relevance. Matsugae admitted that tobacco is harmful, but asserted "a significant lack of scientific evidence" (p. 9) for tobacco's toxicity. Like Takeda, he questioned, "if tobacco really is as hazardous as it is said to be, how do the Japanese have the longest life expectancy even with the highest smoking rate in the world?" (p. 9).
Authored by journalist and university professor Hisashi Muroi, this was eleventh by relevance and third among bestselling; the author described smoking as "a unique gift of pleasure" (p. 70). Since people are mortal, he argued, there was no point in trying to discourage smoking: "considering that all human beings die, it is questionable to single out and harass smokers by addressing only the harm tobacco may possess" (p. 76).
Physician author Akira Hashiuchi claimed a correlation between smoking and birthrate suggests that smoking actually increases the birthrate. He also claimed smoking was socially advantageous for men, arguing that "smokers have higher social status" (p. 38). Former smokers were "men who have let go of their masculinity" (pp.118-119). Non-smoking was associated with evil because, he argued, Hitler hated smoking.
Japanese readers who use the Amazon.co.jp website to search for books about tobacco may be misled by texts such as these. While our search also retrieved anti-smoking books, the positioning of these pro-smoking authors as "scientific" or "medical" authorities claiming that smoking was more beneficial than harmful could influence beliefs and decisions about tobacco use and the desirability of smoking cessation. Public health advocates in Japan (and globally) should expose and counter such misinformation.
More than 40 years ago, a U.S. tobacco company internal document asserted: "Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the "body of fact" that exists in the mind of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy ." While we lack direct evidence that JT influenced these books, at least one was authored by a former JT employee, another uses a well-known JT advertising slogan, and several echo JT claims, suggesting continuation of a long-discredited strategy first perfected by U.S. tobacco companies.
There are, however, hopeful signs. Kanagawa prefecture recently implemented the nation's first smoke-free restaurant ordinance . In February 2010, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare issued "guidelines" on smoke-free restaurants and workplaces  and made clear that the disease effects of SHS have been scientifically established . In addition, in October 2010, the tobacco tax was increased, raising the price of a pack of cigarettes by approximately $1. While cigarette sales in September rose 88% over a year ago due to last-minute buying to stock up , it appears that many smokers decided to quit smoking due to the tax increase; tobacco sales declined in October after the increase , and demand for antismoking medications is reportedly higher than expected . Perhaps these developments, and continued global efforts to denormalize smoking, will help counter misleading claims made in books such as those we reviewed. Meanwhile, tobacco control advocates in Japan may wish to "name and shame" those authors who promulgate such misinformation.
The authors declare no competing interests. REM owns 1 share apiece of stock in Philip Morris USA, PM International, and Reynolds American tobacco companies for research and advocacy purposes.
YK originated the idea for the study, collected and analyzed data, did first translations, and wrote the first draft of the paper. REM supervised the study, analyzed data and designed the conceptual matrix, and participated in writing and editing all drafts. Both authors read and approved the final manuscript.
We thank Aiko Kariya Sato for translation services, and Elizabeth Smith for comments on the table.