Over the summer, employees at a Japanese marketing firm noticed that not all of their colleagues were working the same number of hours.
About one-third of the people at the company, Piala, were smokers and stepped away from their desks during the day for cigarette breaks.
Despite the time the smokers were away from work, everyone left the office for the night at the same time.
Nonsmokers at the agency complained about the unfairness to the chief executive, whose response in September has drawn attention in a country where tobacco use remains popular and workers take few days off.
Employees at Piala who did not smoke, the company announced, would be rewarded with up to six additional vacation days a year.
“I hope to encourage employees to quit smoking through incentives rather than penalties or coercion,” Takao Asuka, the company’s chief executive, told The Japan Times.
So far, the incentive has had some success. After the offer was announced in September, four employees decided to give up smoking, the company said.
The rollout of the new benefit comes as other companies in Japan grapple with how to encourage their own workers to make healthier choices and as the government faces international pressure to crack down on public smoking before the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.
About 20 percent of Japanese smoke, down sharply from recent decades but still one of the highest rates in the world, according to government figures.
Smoking remains part of the culture and work environment in Japan, where it is common for companies to provide designated rooms for employees to smoke indoors.
But at Piala, which has its headquarters in a Tokyo high-rise, about 35 percent of employees smoke, and the cigarette breaks had become disruptive.
The company’s offices are on the 29th floor, but the smoking area is in the building’s basement, meaning employees are away on breaks for up to 15 minutes at a time.
Companies in the United States have typically taken a more punitive stance on smoking, charging workers who use tobacco more for insurance and outlawing smoking on company property. Some employers, including the Cleveland Clinic, will not hire people who smoke.
About 15 percent of adults in the United States smoke, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Just under 50 percent of major American employers surveyed last year said they included a surcharge on insurance policies for smokers, at a median rate of $600 annually, according to Willis Towers Watson, the benefits consultant that conducted the survey of companies with at least 1,000 workers. (The rate was expected to climb to 60 percent of companies in 2018, the group said.)
Some companies in Japan are adopting tougher rules on tobacco use.
A life insurance company in Japan recently announced new antismoking measures, including a ban on smoking on company property and a plan to convert some smoking rooms into other uses.
Broader antismoking efforts in the country have been met with resistance, despite pressure from international groups like the World Health Organization to make the Tokyo Olympics a smoke-free event.
Additionally, the Japanese government holds a stake in Japan Tobacco, the multinational tobacco giant, which critics say compromises its smoking policy.
Some government leaders have embraced a public ban on smoking, including at restaurants, government buildings and hospitals.
But lobbyists and members of the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan — worried about the impact of a ban on restaurants, and on government revenue — have blocked legislation so far.
This post originally appeared on nytimes.com