By Elaine Lies
TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan must make public places in Tokyo smoke-free by the time it hosts the 2020 Summer Olympics or risk falling afoul of International Olympic Committee (IOC) rules that call for a healthy games, activists said on Tuesday.
Japan's health minister has said the government is eager to stamp out smoking in public by the time the capital hosts the Olympics. But smoking remains so entrenched there is still a cigarette vending machine in a Health Ministry annex.
The IOC requires "tobacco-free" games and all recent host cities have passed legislation to ban smoking in indoor and enclosed public spaces, including restaurants, bars and cafes.
Japanese laws encourage restaurants and other public areas to limit exposure to secondhand smoke by setting up barriers or separate smoking and non-smoking areas, but there are no punishments for non-compliance.
Smokers can even light up on the grounds of schools and hospitals.
"The situation for preventing passive smoking in Japan is on a level with that in a developing nation," said Manabu Sakuta, chairman of the non-governmental organization Japan Society for Tobacco Control.
"We hope for improvement so there will not be lots of problems with passive smoking in all the parts of Tokyo that do not meet the Olympic standards, as well as the games venues after they are built."
Health Minister Yasuhisa Shiozaki told a news conference in January his ministry aimed to submit a bill on preventing passive smoking during the current session of parliament.
"According to the World Health Organization, Japan's measures to prevent passive smoking are among the world's worst," he said.
But tightening up the rules faces strong opposition from restaurant management organizations, which fear the impact on their business.
Smoking rates have fallen in Japan due to greater health awareness and higher cigarette prices, health ministry data shows, and about 30 percent of men and 7.9 percent of women smoke.
Keisuke Kurimoto, a deputy director of the ministry's Health Services Section, said it was too early to say what the contents of the proposed bill will be or if it would be ready before the current session ends, probably in June.
"We're using this as an opportunity, a goal," he said of the Olympics.
"Of course, this isn't the only reason, the health impact is our main priority."
(Reporting by Elaine Lies; Editing by Robert Birsel)