Japan has banned smoking from most public places, including many city streets, but one company has given refuge to the dwindling ranks of tobacco addicts, by opening smokers-only cafes.
Thick cigarette smoke wafts through the 'Cafe Tobacco' shops in the heart of Tokyo, filled with office workers and shoppers looking to take a quick puff, a habit increasingly frowned upon in a country long seen as a smokers' paradise.
Advertisement"Nowadays smoking is considered an evil," said Tadashi Horiguchi, a board director of the coffee shop operator Towa Food Service Co, which recently opened its second smokers-only cafe in Tokyo and hopes to grow the business.
"We want to provide an oasis for smokers," Horiguchi said as air purifiers overhead sucked up clouds of blueish smoke from the crowded cafe in Shimbashi, a bar-lined city district known as "salaryman town."
Outside, a red sign with a picture of a smoking cigarette drew more customers, about 600 a day according to the manager Kazuhiro Kawano.
Inhaling from his cigarette and sipping an iced coffee, Koki Takeda, a 24-year-old property salesman, said he was pleasantly surprised when he first saw the 'smokers only' sign outside, near a commuter railway station.
"I thought it's great," he said between drags from his cigarette. "Starbucks bans smoking, and many other coffee shops are non-smoking, or they have a limited number of smoking seats that are often occupied."
Coming to the smokers-only cafe takes the shame out of lighting up, Kawano said.
"You don't have to feel guilty here," he said, as he sat surrounded by other smokers, all of them aged over 20 as stipulated by a sign outside.
Not everyone is as enthusiastic about the new tobacco-friendly cafes.
"Tobacco contains toxic substances and increases health risks," said Yosuke Hagimori, a health ministry official.
"We do not consider it positively when smoking places proliferate," he told AFP, adding that the ministry has no control over the marketing strategies of individual businesses.
Official anti-smoking policies have reduced smoking rates in Japan, where the cigarette was once ubiquitous -- but many campaigners say much remains to be done to stamp out the cancer-causing habit.
Japan's smoking rate is on the decline but still higher than in other developed countries, with some 40 percent of men and 13 percent of women lighting up, according to Japan Tobacco, the former government monopoly.
The central government has yet to pass any wide-scale smoking bans.
The 2002 Health Promotion Law says schools, hospitals, department stores and other public places must make efforts to protect clients from second-hand smoke, but there is no punishment for non-compliance.
Instead many local governments and institutions have taken anti-smoking measures themselves. Central Tokyo districts have prohibited or strongly discouraged smoking on the streets except for designated areas.
Smoking has also been banned in most Tokyo taxis since last year and in railway stations as of earlier this year. Many bars, cafes and restaurants, however, still have smoking sections, to the annoyance of health campaigners.
Bungaku Watanabe, of the non-profit Tobacco Problems Information Centre, said "people smoke because ashtrays are there. Their availability does harm to smokers who actually want to quit smoking."
He argued that Japan's problem with high smoking rates stems from the government, which still owns about half of Japan Tobacco, the country's only cigarette maker with almost 100 brands on the market.
Japanese law still stipulates the goal of a "healthy development" of the tobacco industry to generate income and for stable tax revenue, a position Watanabe said contradicts World Health Organisation rules and is out of step with the public health policies of most other industrialised countries.
Japan Tobacco campaigns for "coexistence between smokers and non-smokers in public spaces" and has deployed at public events a so-called "SmoCar" camper truck equipped with air-purifiers and a deodoriser, to allow people to smoke.
Total cigarette sales fell five percent in Japan in the last fiscal year to March, but still came to 3.73 trillion yen (38 billion dollars), according to data from the private Tobacco Institute of Japan.
Cigarettes now carry warning labels, but they remain much cheaper in Japan than in most other developed countries, with a pack of 20 cigarettes selling for about three dollars.