The government will try to reduce excessive drinking in Japan, according to a draft plan to be endorsed by the Cabinet in May. The government says it will establish at least one medical institution specializing in alcoholism in each prefecture, while setting numerical targets to reduce the lifestyle-related diseases that result from heavy drinking. The initiative, while welcome, comes late in a country where alcohol-related health problems are all too common.
The government plan is good, as far as it goes, but remains insufficient to counter the devastating effects of widespread alcohol abuse. A health ministry survey in 2013 estimated that 800,000 people are seriously addicted to alcohol and nearly 10 million people have a potential dependency problem. The number of those receiving treatment is less than 50,000.
The government wants to reduce the percentage of excessive drinkers among male adults to 13 percent by fiscal 2020, down from 15.8 percent in 2014. It also seeks to lower the percentage of female heavy drinkers to 6.4 percent from 8.8 percent. These targets are achievable, but far from enough.
Alcohol is involved in approximately half of all traffic deaths every year. Among middle-aged men (45-54 years old), 34 percent of all sudden or violent deaths are alcohol-related. Heavy alcohol consumption contributes to liver disease, esophageal cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. The government targets would make only a small dent in these problems.
Better funding for local mental health and welfare centers is an important start, but the government needs to ensure that more local health centers specialize in alcohol treatment, or are equipped to help patients get the treatment they need. Family members, colleagues, classmates and friends are usually the first to intervene with heavy drinkers, but they need convenient, accessible facilities where they can bring those in need of treatment. Greater research into effective treatment programs, drugs and therapies, as well as a larger database on alcohol-related issues must be built, so that treatment can become more effective.
Universities also need to ensure that excessive drinking doesn’t become a habit among students, who gain the right to drink at age 20. Recently, cheaper chain restaurants, where student drinking parties usually take place, have started to check the age of young drinkers more strictly. In the past, almost all students could drink freely from the age of 18. That is a welcome change, but universities should ensure that their student activities are more about socializing and less about heavy drinking.
Alcoholism and heavy drinking are a huge burden on the health care system. This long-term cost could be reduced through better treatment facilities and public education. The government needs to set stricter targets and find sufficient funding if it is really going to reduce the problem.