Drinking problems

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Governments have an alcoholic problem. They have a schizophrenic approach to boozing. Health ministries try to promote moderation or abstinence. Finance ministries want people to consume more heavily-taxed alcohol.

As ever, money triumphs over health – no more so than in Japan. The Tokyo Government has launched an initiative to encourage young people to drink more alcohol. Yes, really.

The national tax agency’s ‘Sake Viva’ campaign is an appeal for ideas to get youngsters boozing after taxes on alcohol products, which accounted for 5 per cent of total revenue back in the hard-drinking 1980s, fell to just 1.7 per cent in 2020. So, at a time of economic hardship, Japan’s youth are being asked to do their patriotic duty and get hammered.

“The domestic alcoholic beverage market is shrinking due to demographic changes such as the declining birth-rate and aging population, and lifestyle changes due to the impact of Covid-19,” said the tax agency’s website, adding that the competition aimed to “appeal to the younger generation … and to revitalise the industry.”

The contest includes promotional ideas for all types of Japanese alcohol, with applications open until 9 September. Finalists will be invited to an expert consultation in October, before a final tournament in November in Tokyo. The winner will receive support to commercialise their idea.

But not everyone is on board with the competition, and the tax agency has received online criticism.

“Are you kidding me?” one Twitter user wrote. “Staying away from alcohol is a good thing!”

Others pointed out that it seemed inappropriate for a government agency to encourage young people to drink, and it appeared the campaign had ignored health risks or sensitivity towards people dealing with alcoholism.

Japan Health Ministry has in the past warned of the dangers of excessive drinking. In a post on its website last year, it called excessive alcohol consumption a “major social problem” that persisted despite a recent slowdown in consumption. And it urged people with unhealthy drinking habits to “reconsider” their relationship with alcohol.

Japan, along with other countries in Asia including Sri Lanka, maintained tough restrictions throughout much of the pandemic, closing public spaces and reducing business hours for restaurants and bars.

Izakayas – Japan’s version of a pub or tavern — were particularly hard hit, with the latest available figures showing sales halved from 2019 to 2020, according to the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.

With fewer opportunities to drink in public, the rate of ‘household consumption’ increased significantly, the ministry said. But young adults have stood out as the exception. About 30 per cent of people in their 40s to 60s drink regularly, meaning three days or more per week, the ministry said – compared to just 7.8 per cent, in their 20s.

“In this way, the decline in drinking habits year by year, is thought to be having an effect on the shrinking of the domestic market,” the ministry said.

In a 2021 report, the tax agency said, duties levied on liquor had been a major revenue source for the government for centuries but had declined over the last 40 years.

According to the Spectator magazine, Covid doesn’t quite cover it: “The new abstinence has deeper roots. Ever since the early 1960s, when the crime-ridden neighbourhoods of Japanese cities were replaced by forests of high-rise towers, the Japanese have mirrored their newly pristine environments by steadily becoming comically law-abiding, obsessively health conscious and scrupulously risk averse.”

In Sri Lanka, economic hardship causes more abstinence than drinkers worrying about their health. But the decline in legal drinking has the same detrimental impact on the nation’s coffers.

In June, the Committee on Public Finance (COPF) revealed that demand for liquor dropped 30 per cent due to price increases and the daily financial struggles facing most of the population.

COPF Chairman at the time, MP Anura Priyadharshana Yapa said: “Direct tax volume has gone down and this will be a big issue for the country.”

One anonymous industry insider claimed that as a result of declining demand for legal liquor, the monthly excise duty paid to the government has fallen by almost 25 per cent.

The high price of legitimate booze also has a health impact. Harry Jayawardena, Chairman of Melstacorp, the holding company of Distilleries Company of Sri Lanka, told Ceylon Today that “People are drinking artificial toddy because of the big price difference, but they are not aware that they are drinking poison.”

So either way, drinkers are paying a high price for their habit.

By Michael Gregson