The Japanese government has not introduced any formal policy on labelling of alcohol products. Instead major brewers have been “requested” to include by gram information on labels of their products.
The government has initiated the process for two reasons:
- To catch up to European regulations which go by serving units.
- To tackle the problem of Ready to Drink (RTD) alcohol products.
The alcohol industry has been increasing the alcohol content in these RTD products alarmingly. A few years back RTD containers had about 5% to 6% alcohol content by volume (ABV) and now they contain 9% to 12% ABV. These products are also extremely cheap at around JPY 200 (US$1.84) per unit. They are also widely available in almost all convenience stores.
Very cheap, highly available products of the alcohol industry put Japanese people at high risk of alcohol harm. For example,
- A 2013 survey conducted by the Japanese Health Ministry showed that about 1.09 million people in Japan had alcohol use problems.
- Domestic violence is high among alcohol users. Japan continues to see a rise in reported cases of domestic violence, with police taking action on a record 9,088 cases in 2018.
- Alcohol is a major risk factor for suicide and Japan had one of the highest suicide rates among developed countries in 2018.
- A large number of underage youth consume alcohol.
Efficacy of alcohol health warning labels
Alcohol health warning labelling has been proven to increase people’s awareness of harm caused by alcohol products. However, this works only when governments regulate labelling statutorily. A series of journal articles published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs (Volume 81, Issue 2) found that three brightly colored, highly visible health warning labels with short messages reduced the sale of alcohol by about 7%. At the same time, knowledge and awareness of low-risk alcohol use guidelines and alcohol-related health risks including cancer increased.
Evidence also shows that self-regulation by Big Alcohol in the area of alcohol labeling is not effective.
So far alcohol industry giants in Japan have expressed mixed views about the government’s request on labeling. For example, Suntory is waiting to see how other companies will act. It is expected that Asahi will be the first to implement some form of label. But Asahi has said the labeling is “under consideration”. Kirin has confirmed they will apply the new labeling but “cautiously”. No company has gotten on board fully. As usual Big Alcohol has deployed the talking point about the costs, claiming it would be too expensive to change labels. This is a widely used strategy by the alcohol industry, for exampled in Australia recently to derail mandatory health and pregnancy warning labeling.
Discussing effective and ineffective alcohol labeling
In a recent podcast Movendi International explored an editorial published by Paula O’Brien, Professor Robin Room and Professor Tim Stockwell in the addiction journal, on the reasons as to why alcohol policy solutions need to be protected from alcohol industry interference.
One of the reasons was that the industry has a poor track record of operating self‐regulatory arrangements for alcohol health warning labels. For example the alcohol industry’s DrinkWise, voluntary labelling scheme in Australia was a failure, with only 47.8% of packaged alcoholic beverages actually carrying the alcohol use and pregnancy logo.