By Elaine Lies
TOKYO (Reuters) - A Japanese member of parliament apologised on Thursday for jeering a lung cancer patient testifying about the dangers of secondhand smoke, saying he had spoken out to prevent discrimination against smokers.
Japan lags many countries in efforts to fight smoking, with attempts to tackle tobacco often stymied by pro-smoking politicians, restaurateurs and Japan Tobacco, which is one-third owned by the government.
Yoichi Anami, a ruling party MP, shouted "Enough already!" at a hearing last week when Kazuo Hasegawa, a 47-year-old non-smoker with stage four lung cancer, was testifying about the danger of secondhand smoke.
Anami's jeer sparked widespread criticism on social media and on Thursday, he issued a statement to say he was sorry if he had caused any "unpleasant feelings".
"I just murmured my feelings that smokers should not be discriminated against more than necessary," he said in the statement on his website.
He did not refer directly to Hasegawa, except to say he had no intention of interfering with the statement of a witness.
Hasegawa told Reuters he did not believe his ears at first.
"I'd actually just said it would be all right if there were places to smoke outdoors when I was jeered, and this was so contradictory I wondered if he'd even been listening, which made me even sadder," he said.
"Some people who smoke have been criticised so much they feel they're being attacked and get angry. Perhaps that was the case with him."
MPs were discussing a bill to limit passive smoking in public areas ahead of the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Activists say about 15,000 Japanese, many of them women and children, die from passive smoking every year.
This week, the lower house passed a watered-down version of a health ministry proposal to limit secondhand smoke, which allows smoking in more places than the original proposal.
Smoking is banned in schools and hospitals, but most provide outdoor smoking spaces. Japan's Health Ministry removed its last cigarette vending machine earlier this year.
"Given how many people die from passive smoking each year, the law should be trying to help them," Hasegawa said. "But the law, as it stands now, doesn't seem as if it will."
(Reporting by Elaine Lies; Editing by Robert Birsel and Clarence Fernandez)