Supply of Anti-Smoking Drug Runs Out After Japan Raises Cigarette Tax

A Japanese cigarette tax increase intended to get smokers to quit has been so successful that supplies of an anti-smoking drug ran out twelve days after the tax hike, The New York Times reported Jan. 3.

The tax, which went into effect Oct. 1, was designed to be a public health initiative and to provide tax revenue for the government. Cigarettes — which can be legally smoked almost anywhere in public in Japan — have long been available at low cost from the government-controlled tobacco company. Before the tax increase, cigarette packs cost about 300 yen, or $3.60, but prices went to 400 yen afterward. 

The Tobacco Institute of Japan reported that sales dropped 70 percent in October. A November survey of over 1,100 smokers by Rakuten Research found that 13.9 percent had quit smoking, and an additional 15.5 percent intended to. 

The most popular smoking cessation aid for Japanese smokers appears to be Champix, a drug made by Pfizer and sold in the U.S. as Chantix. Introduced in 2006, American sales have dropped following warnings from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) about the drug’s possible side effects and a requirement that it carry the agency’s toughest warning. 

According to The New York Times, the drug’s side effects have not received much mention in the Japanese press, and Pfizer got approval to market the drug there in 2008. The price tag for a 12-week prescription — the recommended course — is 60,000 yen; 70 percent of the cost is covered by national health insurance.

The company advertised Champix heavily in Japan, and by August 2009, 70,000 patients a month were buying it. In September, as the tax increase loomed, that number climbed to 170,000, and peaked in October. On Oct. 12, the company stopped shipping its “starter packs,” though it says it will resume this month. 

“After all that advertising, it turns out they don’t have enough,” said Hiroya Kumamaru, who directs Tokyo’s KI Akihabara Clinic. “They should have predicted something like this.”

Some lawmakers, pleased by the success of the cigarette tax in encouraging smokers to quit, hope to do much more.

“This is just the first step. An ideal scenario is to raise tobacco prices to as much as 1,000 yen,” said lawmaker Yoko Komiyama. “Whatever it takes to get more people to quit.”

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