In March 2021 the Japanese government requested the alcohol industry to include gram information (net alcohol content) in alcohol labels in addition to the alcohol by volume (ABV) level. This was part of the government’s national Basic Plan for the Promotion of Measures to Cope with Alcohol Health Disorders (Phase 2).
Now, Japanese alcohol companies have agreed reluctantly to gradually introduce the new voluntary labeling. This is not a government-mandated labeling requirement but a voluntary agreement by the alcohol industry.
Last year when the request was made by the Japanese government no alcohol company was on board with the suggested labeling claiming it would be too expensive to change labels. This is a widely used strategy by the alcohol industry, for example in Australia to derail mandatory health and pregnancy warning labeling.
Remarkably, instead of just adding the gram content or net alcohol to the label as requested by the government the Japanese alcohol giant Kirin will also include a URL to an alcohol industry “responsible alcohol use” website. This is a strategy used by Big Alcohol to mislead and misinform people and reduce any impact of the new labeling.
As previous scientific research has found, exposure to alcohol industry-sponsored messages led to greater reported uncertainty or false certainty about the risk of using alcohol products, compared to non-industry messages.
The public health potential of proper alcohol labeling
Alcohol health warning labeling has the potential to increase people’s awareness about the harms caused by alcohol products. This has been proven in studies, for example in the United Kingdom (UK) and Canada. However, these labels are effective only if they are government-mandated and follow evidence-based labeling regulations. For example, in one study in Canada three brightly colored, highly visible health warning labels with short messages reduced the sale of alcohol by 6.6%.
Protecting and improving the health of people and communities is directly in conflict with the alcohol industry’s goals. Reduced alcohol sales mean better public health but also lower alcohol industry profits. Therefore, the alcohol industry attempts to derail, obstruct, and influence such public health science and policymaking. This is why the Canadian study had to be stopped within a month due to the alcohol industry threatening legal action.
While obstructing public health policymaking the alcohol industry promotes industry self-regulation, such as the above Japanese alcohol labeling scheme.
- In the UK, more than 70% of labels did not include the low-risk alcohol use guidelines, over three years after they were updated and way past the deadline the alcohol industry voluntarily agreed with the Government.
- In Australia, only 47.8% of packaged alcoholic products carried the alcohol pregnancy warning labeling logo voluntarily agreed by the industry via the industry’s own DrinkWise scheme.
Therefore, it is controversial and counter-productive that the Japanese government allows Big Alcohol to make its own rules about alcohol labeling.
The new net alcohol information on product labels will not be effective even if alcohol companies do adopt it. And the risk is high that the new labeling will lead to further confusion about alcohol risk among Japanese people. The label will direct people to an alcohol industry website and these websites have a track record of misleading people on alcohol’s risk.
For more information: Listen to the Alcohol Issues Podcast Season 1 Episode 14
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