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Japan brewer withdraws range of strong alcoholic drinks dubbed destructive by expert

Two cans from Orion Breweries' discontinued Watta Strong chuhai range are seen in Naha, Okinawa Prefecture, on April 26, 2020. (Mainichi/Takayasu Endo)

"Strong" level chuhai (shochu highball) alcoholic drinks with a typical alcohol by volume (ABV) of around 7 to 9% have quickly become huge sellers in Japan, and while demand for other alcoholic drinks such as beer continues to shrink, they have become market-leading products.

But many experts who specialize in issues around alcohol addiction have warned that these beverages are a high binge-drinking and alcohol addiction risk. Concerns also appear to be mounting in some parts of the industry. Orion Breweries Ltd., based in southernmost Okinawa Prefecture, has from this year pulled the plug on its strong chuhai production, citing "consideration for our consumers' health" as the reason behind the move.

With their decision, the first shot has been fired. But will it do anything to alter the drinks' buoyant success?

After retirement, a man in his 60s lost his wife and found himself living alone. His grief and loneliness led him to drink, and eventually he arrived at strong chuhais. With their high alcoholic content he could get drunk quickly, and they went down smoothly to the point that he couldn't stop drinking them, often to the point that he would go to bed without eating enough. Even when he became inarticulate and incontinent, he kept ordering more, and he began to hear and see things, too. His daughter, who lives away from him, sensed there was something wrong on the phone, and visited the house to find it strewn with empty cans and her father collapsed from dehydration in a foul-smelling room.

The man's story was among the case studies of addiction described in the book "How not to drink destructively, living without escaping in a glass," by Akiyoshi Saito, the head of mental health and welfare department at the Ofuna Enomoto Clinic in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, south of Tokyo. In his book, published by Shueisha Inc., he discusses six separate addiction cases, five of whom regularly consume strong chuhai drinks. Saito said, "I feel that about 70 to 80% of alcoholics in recent years regularly drink these products."

Strong chuhai drinks were first introduced to the market between 2008 and 2009, when major firms Kirin Brewery Co. and Suntory Holdings Ltd. released their takes on the product. They became popular for being cheap and easy to drink, and soon their competitors brought their own versions out, too. Even though we often hear now that young people are shunning alcohol, "Ready to Drink," alcoholic beverages such as canned chuhais and highballs have seen their sales rise in recent years, with strong chuhais at the forefront of this phenomenon.

According to Suntory's estimates, it sold 26.92 million cases of ready to drink products with an ABV of 7% or more in 2010. In 2019, this number had swelled by about four times, with 112.14 million cases sold. Each case contains six liters of the drinks. In April 2020, the company's popular "-196 C Strong Zero" series of ready to drink products reported annual sales of some 243.51 million liters in 2018, for which it was recognized by Guinness World Records.

But while popular, the strong-level drinks have come in for frequent criticism from experts for being dangerous. Toshihiko Matsumoto, director of the Department of Drug Dependence Research at the National Center of Neurology and Psychiatry (NCNP), took to his personal Facebook account at the end of 2019 to write, "Perhaps it would be better if they were regulated as 'dangerous drugs.' I often find myself thinking about it half-seriously." Even in his clinical experience, he sees patients who have lost control from drinking the products. His comments caused a stir, particularly when he wrote, "Even most users of illegal drugs that I've seen don't reach the same level of destruction."

He says, "Other alcoholic drinks, such as shochu, may have a higher ABV, but strong brand drinks are smoother, and it's easy to drink them quickly like juice." A 350-milliliter can of strong chuhai with 9% alcohol is the equivalent to about one "go" of sake (about 180 milliliters) or two shots of tequila or more, but because they come with flavors such as lemon or grapefruit, it makes it feel like high levels of alcohol aren't being consumed. Because of these characteristics, Matsumoto points out, "For young people who can't get on with the bitter taste of beer, they're easy to drink, and can act as a gateway for the younger generation to binge drink."

Amid these concerns, the Okinawa-based alcoholic drinks producer and seller Orion Breweries has decided to act. Its Watta Strong chuhai range of drinks with 9% ABV, which first went on sale in May 2019, has been discontinued from 2020. The products were the company's first foray into the market, and in their 10-month period on sale they proved popular, with sales of around 170 million yen. A representative of the company's public relations department said, "There have been claims in society that these high-alcohol products are damaging, and we decided that as a company the health of our customers is the most important thing."

But the move made by Orion Breweries isn't being replicated by the wider industry. The Mainichi Shimbun approached Suntory, Kirin, Asahi Breweries and Sapporo Breweries for comment. A Suntory PR representative responded by saying, "We advise consumers to always drink responsibly. These are some of the top products in our range, and we want to continue selling them."

An Asahi Group Holdings Ltd. PR representative struck a similar tone, saying, "Strong chuhais are in high demand so we will continue to sell them. As a company, we will continue to call for responsible drinking while also wanting our customers to enjoy their drinks." None of the companies approached expressed an intention to reconsider selling the products, or look into the possibility of discontinuing them.

There's a saying in Japan that "a drink is the best medicine," but it's a truism to say that drinking more than an appropriate amount of any alcohol isn't good for your health. Akiyoshi Saito said that a change in the way we think about alcohol consumption is also important: "It's not that alcohol is the sole bad actor, there are issues presented by drinkers themselves. An appropriate level of alcohol to consume in a single day is about 20 grams for a man with regular alcohol tolerance; the equivalent of about one 500-milliliter can of beer. If you're going to drink a strong chuhai, then you should stop at one 350-ml can. To have a long and enjoyable relationship with alcohol, that amount is around about enough."

(Japanese original by Yuta Hiratsuka, Kyushu News Department)

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