Around the world young people are increasingly sober curious, reducing or quitting alcohol use and staying alcohol-free longer during adolescence and into adulthood. This trend is more pronounced in Western countries and cultures with a pervasive alcohol norm, such as Japan. This positive trend is denormalizing alcohol and normalizing alcohol-free environments, choices, and ways of life. This leads to more inclusive, healthy, and safe communities for everyone.
As Movendi International previously reported, Japan is one of the countries with entrenched alcohol norms. Alcohol use has even been connected to the workplace through Nomikai. This means Japanese people were often forced to consume alcohol in the workplace if offered by a superior or with business clients to close business deals and get ahead in their careers.
However, in recent years this harmful alcohol norm has been changing, mainly driven by young people.
An increasing number of young people in Japan is now choosing an alcohol-free life or reducing their alcohol use. Instead of alcohol products, they are opting for no- and low-alcohol products when going out and socializing with friends.
Even the harmful alcohol norms at the workplace are changing. Forcing employees to consume alcohol is now seen as harassment and can lead to serious consequences for employers.
The COVID-19 pandemic strengthened this growing trend of going alcohol-free among Japanese people. Lockdown restrictions led to bars and restaurants either being closed or not allowed to serve alcohol products since alcohol drove the COVID-19 spread. Japanese television ran compelling messaging campaigns reminding people to stay healthy during the pandemic, to avoid catching the virus, or developing complications. The combined effect is that more Japanese people have realized they do not need alcohol and enjoy the benefits of an alcohol-free, healthy life.
According to the NLI Research Institute,
- About 38% of Japanese men in 2017 reported being alcohol-free. This is an increase from about 30% reporting the same a decade ago in 2007.
- About 70% of Japanese women reported being alcohol-free in 2017 – up from about 65% a decade ago.
- Men in their 40s and women in their 30s had the largest change between 2007 and 2017 in the proportion reporting being alcohol-free.
Thanks to the rising sober positivity of Japanese people, specifically youth, the no- and low-alcohol (NoLo) market has been growing rapidly in Japan in recent years.
- Suntory Holdings, a Big Alcohol giant, reported that the market for non-alcohol and low-alcohol beverages such as beer and chūhai (cocktails made with neutral grain spirits and mixers) had quadrupled over the previous decade to 22.65 million.
- In 2021, Asahi Group Holdings forecasted a 20% increase in revenue for non- and low-alcoholic beer.
- Kirin Holdings forecasted a 23% increase this year, and a 10% increase in 2020 for their NoLo products.
All of this is good news for Japan, a country suffering from an age-old alcohol norm and massive alcohol harm.
Nevertheless, Japan’s tax agency does not consider health and social improvements as important achievements. A shocking new campaign by the Japanese government and spearheaded by the National Tax Agency calls on young people to submit proposals to promote alcohol products.
What is the Japanese government (not) thinking?
The campaign is called “Viva Sake!” Sake is a type of traditional Japanese alcohol produced with rice. The campaign has called on individuals or groups of up to three young people between 20 to 39 years to submit proposals for promotions that could encourage young people to consume more alcohol.
Anyone from around the world can participate as long as the content promotes Japanese alcohol products and is in the Japanese language. Entry is free and the deadline is September 9, 2022. Participants are also encouraged to create promotions based on AI technology and the metaverse.
The best promotions are to be selected and developed with experts. The final promotional content will be presented in Tokyo in November and commercialized. Finalists will also win a free trip to Tokyo.
The ill-advised and harmful campaign has already stirred a lot of backlash from both people and communities in Japan, especially young people, as well as the international community.
I don’t think it is a good thing to make people who don’t use alcohol, to start use alcohol,” said Mima Matsumaru, 25, who works in advertising, as per The New York Times.Mima Matsumaru, 25, who works in advertising
The campaign is also in conflict with the advice the Japanese government has been giving its citizens to reduce or stop using alcohol to stop the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Japan is still recording high levels of coronavirus cases.
This campaign shows that there is a major disconnect between public health and economic policies in Japan, to the extent that the policies are contradicting.
The media is announcing record Covid cases, while restaurants are like, don’t talk while eating, wear a mask,” said Chika Kato, a 27-year-old consultant in Tokyo, as per The New York Times.
But the government is at the same time asking us to go all out and have alcohol.”Chika Kato, a 27-year-old consultant in Tokyo
Misguided plans to increase alcohol tax revenue
The Japanese government is trying to boost alcohol sales to “help” the alcohol industry after the COVID-19 pandemic and thereby boost alcohol tax revenues.
This is a misguided, ill-advised, and harmful use of alcohol taxation. When used correctly and with a public health focus, as recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) alcohol taxation is the most impactful and cost-effective policy solution governments can use to prevent and reduce alcohol harm and boost domestic resource mobilization through revenues.
However, the Japanese government has misplaced priorities for alcohol taxation since they have forgotten about the public health aspect of this policy tool.
Alcohol tax revenues have fallen rapidly by about 50% since the peak in 1994 in Japan. In 2020 alcohol tax revenues decreased by 9.1%. This was the largest reduction in alcohol tax revenues in Japan in the past 30 decades.
In the year to March 2021, alcohol tax revenues made up 1.7% (about $8 billion) of government income from taxes. In 2020 this figure was 3% and in the 1980s it was 5%. For comparison, the United States only earned 0.2% ($7.7 billion) of its general revenue from alcohol taxes in 2019 according to the Urban Institute. The United States is approaching alcohol taxation in the interest of alcohol companies, not the people and society, giving Big Alcohol tax breaks.
Overall tax revenues in the country have also fallen in recent years. But government spending has kept increasing. Japan’s tax revenue as a percentage of GDP stands at just 19%, according to the Finance Ministry, versus 33% in Sweden or 47% in Denmark. Japanese spending is however up to par with Scandinavian nations. This means the country is spending more than it can afford. This coupled with an aging population, low birthrate and one of the largest debt burdens in the developed world means Japan needs to find ways to close its revenue-spending gap soon. However, boosting alcohol sales is not the way to go.
What is shocking is that even Japan’s health ministry did not object to the campaign saying that the promotion was in line with its view of “responsible alcohol use” – a highly problematic and harmful concept propagated by the alcohol industry.
The Japanese tax agency has responded to the backlash to the campaign saying that it is not meant to encourage “excessive alcohol use”. It is controversial and revealing that the agency would demarcate “excessive” use when science has proven that there is no safe level of alcohol use.
A study conducted with Japanese people found that there is no safe level of alcohol use for cancer risk.
The Japanese government is doing the dirty work for the alcohol industry, using alcohol industry talking points and risking the health of Japanese youth, over the profit interest of Big Alcohol in Japan.
Japanese communities oppose the government campaign to boost alcohol sales
Japanese communities represented by civil society organizations, including Non-Profit Corporation ASK, All Japan Sobriety Federation, Japanese Society for Study in Addiction Nursing, Japan Association of Social Workers on Alcohol-Related Problems, Japan Association of Medical Social Workers, Japan Association of Social Workers, Japan Association of Mental Health Social Workers, Liaison Council for the Prevention of Binge-drinking, and Housewives’ Federation have all called on the Commissioner of the National Tax Agency and the Minister of Health, Labor and Welfare to stop the “Sake Viva” campaign.
As the civil society group points out, declining alcohol use is a positive trend for Japan which will reduce alcohol-related health problems and social and economic harm due to alcohol.
Furthermore, the new services and promotion methods and use of AI and metaverse as the campaign calls for can lead to even more alcohol problems for Japanese people leading to higher costs.
The group provides five reasons why the Japanese government should put a stop to this campaign:
- The national Basic Plan for the Prevention of Alcohol Health Disorders, recognizes young people as a high-risk group and are prioritized for interventions.
- Even during the COVID-19 lockdown half of the emergency cases for acute alcohol intoxication were for people under the age of 30, according to the Tokyo Fire Department.
- Fatalities caused by alcohol-impaired driving are highest among those who are under 30 years of age, according to The National Police Agency.
In addition, people, communities, and civil society groups are cautioning:
- The World Health Organization’s Global Alcohol Strategy states that it is difficult to target only young adult consumers without exposing youth who have not reached the legal age for alcohol consumption to the same marketing and that governments should limit or prohibit alcohol promotions targeting young people.
- The new WHO Global Alcohol Action Plan (2022-2030) calls on countries to use the decline in youth alcohol use in recent years as an opportunity for public health policies and programs.
Japan has supported the adoption of both the Global Alcohol Strategy in 2010 and the Global Alcohol Action Plan in 2022.
Alcohol harm in Japan
Why it is wrong for the Japanese government to promote alcohol sales is because people and communities in Japan are affected by the country’s heavy alcohol burden. While the younger generations are undoing Japan’s pervasive alcohol norms, the harm of years of pervasive alcohol norms and heavy use are still being experienced in the country.
- According to research, the rate of alcohol use disorder and addiction is declining in most developed countries. But in Japan it’s increasing.
- A 2013 survey conducted by the Japanese Health Ministry stated that about 1.09 million people in Japan had alcohol use problems but only 40 to 50 thousand were receiving treatment.
- Domestic violence is high among alcohol users.
- Japan continues to see a rise in reported cases of domestic violence, with police was taking action on a record 9,088 cases in 2018.
- Alcohol is a major risk factor for suicide and Japan has one of the highest suicide rates among developed countries in 2018.
- A large number of underage youth consume alcohol.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2016 in Japan,
- Total per capita alcohol consumption was 8 liters.
- This is higher than the average for the WHO Western-Pacific region.
- Per capita consumption of male alcohol users was at 19 liters, among the highest rates in the world.
- More than two-thirds of young alcohol users engage in heavy episodic alcohol use.
- More than 20,000 cancer deaths are attributable to alcohol in Japan.
Japan does have a national alcohol policy in place to protect people from alcohol harm. Clearly, more can and must be done to improve alcohol policy and promote better health for all people in Japan.
For example, setting common-sense limits for on- and off-premise sales is one area that the Japanese government can improve. Japan also needs more comprehensive alcohol marketing regulations as there are currently no regulations on alcohol advertising, product placements, sponsorships, and promotions.
The Japanese government needs to address the disconnect between public health policies and economic policies and prioritize alcohol policy solutions to protect the health and well-being of the people.
The Washington Post: “A Sober Younger Generation Gives Japan a Hangover“
The New York Times: “Drink Up, Japan Tells Young People. I’ll Pass, Many Reply.“