Japanese convenience stores are now allowed to sell alcohol and tobacco through self-checkout. Japan’s Minister of Digital Affairs Taro Kono made the announcement during a recent press conference, saying the changes go into effect immediately for c-stores that are set up for compliance with the required identification regulations.
The new system will make alcohol and tobacco even more easily available, drive alcohol and tobacco normalization, and further weaken compliance with existing age limits for alcohol and tobacco purchases.

No ordinary commodity and yet increasingly normalized in Japan

Self-checkout at retail stores across Japan has gained traction and is becoming increasingly common. Shoppers are getting used to the systems and embrace the benefits of shorter lines and quicker transactions.

But no self-checkout will also include products that are harmful and very different from ordinary consumer products.

In a controversial decision, Minister of Digital Affairs Taro Kono announced that convenience stores in Japan could commence selling alcohol and tobacco products through self-checkout registers.

The practice was announced on January 31, 2023 and Minister Kono convenience stores could begin selling alcohol and tobacco through self-check-out immediately, as long as they’re set up for compliance with the corresponding required regulations.

With this new development, titled ‘Guidelines for age verification of alcoholic beverages and tobacco using digital technology’, self-checkout registers will be issued with card readers to scan either a driver’s license or My Number Card (a government-issued ID first introduced in 2016). No technological measure will be implemented to confirm that the customer is using a card that belongs to them, according to The Drinks Business.

The major motivation for allowing alcohol and tobacco purchase self-checkouts was to increase the uptake of special ID cards by offering an incentive, as Minister Kono explained, according to The Drinks Business:

The Digital Agency also believes that the formulation of these guidelines is an important initiative that will contribute to the further spread of My Number cards, in addition to improving the certainty of age verification.

I plan to visit convenience stores that will begin selling alcohol and tobacco in line with these guidelines. We are aware that this initiative will be gradually expanded in the future. I think it will also be an opportunity for you to experience the convenience of the My Number Card.”

Taro Kono, Minister of Digital Affairs, Japan

Alcohol and tobacco normalization and increasing availability

Under Japanese law, a person must be at least 20 years old in order to purchase alcohol or tobacco.

In order to confirm the buyer’s age, convenience stores that want to sell alcohol through self-check-out will have to equip their registers with a device that can scan either the purchaser’s driver’s license or My Number Card, a government-issued ID card that’s not yet mandatory and which the Japanese government is eager to accelerate the adoption of, according to Japan Today reporting.

Using the self-checkout system for harmful products is controversial because of multiple concerns:

  1. It treats alcohol and tobacco as if they were normal consumer goods.
  2. It makes harmful products more easily available.
  3. It is ripe for abuse.

The device to test the age of the shopper is just a card reader. There’s no machine or human checking to see that the photo on the card matches the person buying the booze or cigarettes. This means that with the self-checkout system for alcohol and tobacco the legal age limit of 20 years becomes meaningless.

As Japan Today notes, the self-checkout system is not confirming that the buyer is 20 or older. Instead it is merely confirming that they shopper has a card from someone 20 or older, who may or may not really be the person making the purchase.

Japan already has serious problems with age limit compliance, regarding alcohol.

Currently, a convenience store clerks would ask buyers of beer, sake, or other alcoholic beverages to confirm their age by pressing a button on the register’s monitor. The exact phrasing varies by store chain/register manufacturer, but it invariably is some variation on the question “Are you 20 years or older?” The only button for the shopper to press is the “Yes” button. It is uncommon that shoppers of alcohol get asked to show their ID, according to Japan Today reporting.

Minors in Japan will be able to buy alcohol via self-check-out using an older friend’s card, or “borrowing” their parents’ card.

Alcohol harm and policy in Japan

Japan already faces the societal problem of widespread heavy episodic alcohol use by minors. According to the WHO Country Profile for Japan (2019), more than 67% of young male alcohol users engage in binge alcohol use. For both genders combined it is more than half of all minors who use alcohol that engage in binge alcohol use.

Especially men have a very high alcohol use in Japan, with alcohol users consuming 19 liters of pure alcohol per person, per year.

And alcohol use has risen in Japan from 2010 to 2016, according to the WHO.

© WHO Global Alcohol Status Report, 2019: Country Profile Japan

These heavy amounts and high risk patterns of alcohol use are having serious consequences for people, communities, and society at large in Japan:

  • 10,360 liver cirrhosis deaths were caused by alcohol in 2016,
  • 1330 road traffic deaths were caused by alcohol in 2016, and
  • More than 20,000 cancer deaths were caused by alcohol in 2016.

The overall alcohol policy situation in Japan is bad. Some of the most cost-effective, well-proven, and beneficial alcohol policy solutions are not implemented in Japan. The country has no regulation of alcohol advertising, sponsorship, and promotion. Neither does Japan institute common sense limits on alcohol availability, concerning opening hours and alcohol outlet density. In addition, enforcement of the 20-year age limit for alcohol sales is weak.

As part of the SAFER alcohol policy blue print, the World Health Organization recommends for countries to introduce high-impact, cost-effective, and evidence-based alcohol availability regulations, including minimum age limits.

[Limiting alcohol availability] prevents easy access to alcohol by young people and other vulnerable and high-risk groups.”

WHO SAFER Technical Package

Government have several policy solutions at their disposal to limit the physical availability of alcohol:

  • Implement licensing systems to monitor the production, wholesale, sales, including delivery, and serving of alcoholic beverages;
  • Regulate the number, density and location of retail alcohol outlets;
  • Regulate the hours and days during which alcohol may be sold;
  • Establish a national legal minimum age for purchase and consumption of alcohol; and
  • Limit the use of alcohol in public places.

Source Website: Japan Today