The problem began in the basement of a Tokyo high rise, in the designated area where the building’s smokers could congregate for cigarette breaks.
The drama, though, unfolded 29 floors above, where non-smoking employees at marketing firm named Piala began to notice their smoker colleagues—about a third of the workforce—would spend the same number of hours at the office, but would take 15 minute smoke breaks throughout the day, according to The New York Times (paywall).
They seethed. Then they decided to report their colleagues to Piala’s CEO, Takao Asuka.
But instead of punishing the smokers, the company wound up rewarding the non-smokers, giving them six extra vacation days a year. The idea was to set up an incentive for the smokers to quit, rather than hammer them with punitive measures or try and more closely monitor the amount of time employees spend at their desks.
It’s of note that this policy change came from the corporate sphere and not from government. In Japan, the government has a vested interest in the tobacco industry—it has a 33% stake in Japan Tobacco, one of the Big Four global tobacco companies that dominate the industry. That relationship is one reason Japan has lagged behind the rest of the world in trying to crack down on smoking.
Piala’s corporate decision made headlines in Japan, where about 20% of the population smokes. Typically, anti-smoking policies around the world have been punitive: higher cigarette taxes, higher insurance premiums, and no-smoking rules in restaurants and bars. But they don’t always work. a public shaming approach in Beijing has only had mixed results, and studies have shown that garish cigarette warning labels in the US aren’t all that effective.
The reward of extra vacation days gives smokers a reason beyond personal wellbeing to ditch cigarettes. There are early signs it may be an effective approach: Piala says at least four employees have already quit smoking.