An estimated 6.45 million people in Japan suffer from alcohol-related problems. Among them are 800,000 people who suffer from alcohol dependency severe enough to require medical treatment, yet only 40,000 of them receive such treatment each year, according to findings of a research team of the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry. Excessive drinking costs the nation ¥4.15 trillion and 35,000 lives annually.

A basic law to prevent health damage from alcohol, enacted in the extraordinary Diet last fall with little public attention, is the first legal step taken by Japan in response to the World Health Organization’s Global Strategy to Reduce the Harmful Use of Alcohol adopted in 2010. Civic groups, organizations and experts concerned with the issue approached lawmakers, who then submitted the legislation as a supra-partisan bill. The basic law was approved with unanimous support in both chambers of the Diet.

While concrete actions must await additional discussion, the law is significant in declaring that national and local governments, medical professionals and other parties involved are responsible for planning and implementing actions to deal with various health and social problems caused by harmful drinking.

Further efforts on a national basis are needed to come up with effective measures to prevent damage from inappropriate use of alcoholic beverages and to support those who suffer from alcohol dependency. Excessive consumption of alcohol harms people both physically and mentally. Alcohol abuse often leads to alcohol dependency. Habitual drinkers increase the amount of alcohol use until they get mentally addicted and ultimately enter a vicious cycle of suffering from withdrawal symptoms when they are not drinking and then drinking to escape the pain of withdrawal symptoms.

But alcohol can pose dangers even when one is not dependent on it. Drinking beyond reasonable levels raises the risk of acute alcoholic poisoning, lifestyle-induced illnesses, cancer, depression and other health problems. It also contributes to traffic accidents, workplace accidents, domestic violence and suicides. Alcohol abuse can also lead to joblessness and poverty.

A major problem in Japan, experts point out, is the lack of social recognition that alcohol dependency is an illness. In a society where drinking tends to be promoted as a virtue, addiction to alcohol is often misunderstood as a problem resulting from a person’s weak character. This view, in turn, can help to discourage people from receiving appropriate treatment. While many alcoholics are middle-aged men, the ranks of elderly and women who suffer from alcoholism are growing. Studies show that women tend to develop alcohol-dependency symptoms much more quickly than men.

According to the WHO, the harmful use of alcohol kills 2.5 million people a year worldwide and is the third leading risk factor for poor health globally. The WHO strategy cites key areas for policy actions at the national level, including leadership, awareness and commitment, responses of health services and community action, and priority areas for global action, such as public-health advocacy, technical support and capacity building and production, and dissemination of knowledge.

Following the enactment of the basic law, the Japanese government will draw up a basic plan to promote specific measures, based on each prefecture’s devising its own programs to suit local needs.

On the agenda will be steps to improve health examination, guidance and medical treatment, to stop people from damaging their health through harmful drinking, to monitor treatment progress and to prevent the recurrence of alcohol addiction. Steps must also be taken to crack down on people who habitually drive after drinking or engage in alcohol-induced violence. These should include counseling for both the alcoholics and their families aimed at helping them to end their dependency on alcohol and become a positive force at home and in society.

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