Japan’s dietary supplement industry inches towards organic reform


Ostensibly to protect people from snake oil salesmen peddling worthless cures, Japan limits its citizens access to routine information about dietary supplements. Laws governing claims that manufacturers of supplements can make are among the most restrictive in the developed world. That could change as policymakers come under increasing pressure from big business, academia, and from policymakers themselves.

Under Japan’s Pharmaceutical Affairs Law, supplement manufacturers can make few product health claims. For instance, a glucosamine tablet manufacturer may not tell customers, “glucosamine is good for joints.” That differs in the US, where since 1994 under the Dietary Supplements Health and Education Act, generic claims are allowed.

All developed nations rightly prevent manufacturers from making medical claims in the treatment of disease without supportive clinical evidence. There remains however, a wide variance in how governments treat generic and palliative claims on food supplements (i.e. non-drug related items). The US operates on the principal of informed choice. It assumes that people have the responsibility to care for themselves and should be given the information to do so. Japan’s government takes the opposite position – that not all consumers are able to make appropriate choices and therefore information should be restricted.

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Rapid growth of Japan’s dietary supplement market is giving ministers pause to rethink current policy. The market for supplements is growing at double digit rates as people, many with high disposable income, enter their 40s, 50s and 60s seeking alternative ways to stay healthy. Even Prime Minster Shinzo Abe searched for ‘alternatives’, when he could not get in Japan the medicines needed to treat a rare form of chronic bowel illness. Young people too are coming to market assuming the need to supplement. They’re drinking products to help them maintain fair skin and strong nails. Supplements can now be purchased everywhere. Drugstore chains on high streets sell everything from traditional Chinese medicine (kanpoyaku), to prescription medicines and supplements. Convenience stores and ¥100 shops also sell supplements.

The growing market for supplements has attracted big Japanese companies into the field, many of which dominate cable-TV advertising. They want to tell customers about the benefits of dietary supplements so they can grow the total market, and their slice of it. They are pressuring ministers to liberalize the law.

Experts too are pressuring ministers, suggesting that a more laissez-faire approach to the sale of supplements could increase employment and reduce the country’s rising medical costs. Professor Ryoichi Morishita of Osaka University introduced that notion to Abe’s Regulatory Reform Council this February in his presentation, “Nurturing a Growth Industry Through Regulatory Reform.”

Enduring 15 years of economic stagnation, policymakers are under pressure from within their own ranks to find ways to grow the Japanese economy. Ministers are set to review issues surrounding laws governing health and medicine under the auspices of “Abenomics” − and within that context, possible reform of the laws governing dietary supplements. The Prime Minister made mention of it during his speech on Wednesday, although details will most likely not emerge until after the Upper House elections on July 21st.

Masafumi Hashimoto, President of AIFN (Association of International Foods & Nutrition) told Beacon Reports: “We are gratified the Abe Cabinet views the dietary supplement industry as a growth industry that could benefit from regulatory reform. This is an opportunity that should not be missed.”

All of which leaves open the prospect that Japan’s laws governing the sale of supplements could reform – organically.


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