TOKYO — Japan risks losing its bid to host the 2020 Olympic Games because of growing local and international opposition to the national tobacco corporation’s sponsorship of World Cup volleyball, which attracts millions of women and schoolgirls.
A United Nations agency, an international group of nongovernmental organizations and hundreds of antismoking activists and doctors in Japan are calling on Japan Tobacco, the world’s third-largest cigarette maker, to halt its sponsorship of World Cup matches, which includes players from the United States and other nations that forbid tobacco advertising at sporting events.
A group of 2,500 doctors here also says tobacco sponsorship could hurt Japan’s bid to host the 2020 Olympic Games.
Japan Tobacco insists it is doing nothing wrong under Japanese law and points out that it is promoting the corporation’s beverage division, not its cigarette products, at the monthlong volleyball tournament, which ends Sunday.
In Japan’s national volleyball league, Japan Tobacco sponsors the JT Thunders men’s team and the JT Marvelous women’s team, featuring Japan’s top player, Yoshie Takeshita.
Dr. Armando Peruga, program manager of the World Health Organization’s Tobacco Free Initiative, said WHO plans to contact the Federation of International Volleyball, the sport’s governing body, “to convey our disappointment at their actions and to remind them that in 2002 they publicly committed to have a tobacco-free sport.”
WHO says that Japan is obliged to comply with the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control treaty it adopted in 2004 along with 173 other nations. The treaty bans all tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship everywhere, including at sporting events, WHO press officer Timothy O’Leary said.
Doctors in Japan accused Japan Tobacco of “illegally” putting its logo on the uniforms of Japan’s national team, on courtside digital billboards, in TV ads, and on gift packages handed out to schoolgirls, mothers and children entering Yoyogi National Stadium and arenas across Japan during the volleyball tournament.
The 2004 treaty is “legally binding under international law,” Dr. Peruga said in an email.
“We hope that the Japan government will soon abide by its international commitments to avoid situations such as the one created by this volleyball tournament.”
Hiroshi Takeuchi, the volleyball federation’s press commissioner, said last week that Japan Tobacco is a sponsor “in the beverage category” because it also has a division selling tea, coffee and other drinks.
Japan Tobacco also defended its sponsorship of the tournament, saying it “abides by all laws and voluntary codes in Japan.”
“Nowhere in our corporate sponsorship of volleyball games do we advertise our cigarette brands or products,” the company said in an email.
Dr. Manabu Sakuta, chairman of the board of directors of the Japan Society for Tobacco Control, dismissed the company’s claim as “complete nonsense.”
“It doesn’t matter if Japan Tobacco is doing various works. Everybody knows that Japan Tobacco’s main business is tobacco. More than 90 percent of their income is from cigarettes. You can’t make excuses,” he said.
Dr. Sakuta said his group, which includes 2,500 doctors, will petition the president of Japan Tobacco and Japan’s Ministry of Finance, which owns 51 percent of shares in Japan Tobacco, to immediately halt what he called “illegal” tobacco advertising at the volleyball World Cup.
He said that Japan’s current actions could harm its bid to host the 2020 Olympics.
“It is going to be a problem for Japan. Smoking is not allowed near the Olympic stadiums. What they are doing at the World Cup volleyball, putting JT mark on the shoulder of players or around the floor, is absolutely forbidden in the Olympics. This is not good for Japan’s hope to host the Olympics,” he said.
The International Olympic Committee will choose the host city for the 2020 Games in 2013.
Tokyo on Wednesday unveiled its Olympic campaign logo, a garland of cherry blossoms. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said last week he will serve as a “top adviser” to personally help Japan’s bid to host the 2020 Summer Games.
Though Japan has hosted every volleyball World Cup since 1977, the event is broadcast worldwide, showing international athletes playing in front of Japan Tobacco ads. Some activists have urged athletes to boycott the event if they are against associating smoking with healthy lifestyles.
Dr. Sakuta, a professor of neurology at Tokyo’s Kyorin University and the Japan Red Cross Medical Center, said his group’s 12 lawyers are currently discussing whether they could obtain a court injunction to immediately halt tobacco ads at the World Cup and force Japan Tobacco and the organizers to pay fines.
The World Health Organization says smoking kills almost 6 million people a year, including 600,000 nonsmokers. The European Union banned tobacco ads on TV in 1991 and at international sporting events in 2005.
Japan Tobacco said in an email that the corporation “continues to work on youth smoking prevention, while cooperating with concerned parties, as minors should never smoke.”
The corporation added that it organizes the “Youth Smoking Prevention Council” and joins police, municipalities and other groups in a “variety of educational campaigns.”