Archive for July, 2013

Blood pressure medication huge cash cow

Thursday, July 25th, 2013

Low enough for you?

Low enough for you?

Earlier this month Kyoto University revealed that a study one of its researchers carried out to evaluate the effectiveness of the drug Diovan, which lower blood pressure, was probably “erroneous.” Though the university did not say the drug itself was ineffective, it did admit that the data of “those involved in the research” did not always agree with the conclusions of the lead researcher, Hiroaki Matsubara, which said that Diovan is “more potent in reducing angina and brain strokes than any other hypertensive medicines.” There are suspicions that Matsubara may have changed some of his data. In December 2012 he asked that his papers on the study be withdrawn.

Diovan, which is also sold generically as valsartan, was developed by the Swiss pharmaceuital giant Novartis Pharma K.K., which reportedly gave Matsubara a ¥100 million grant for his study. It wouldn’t have the first time the company has been accused of bribing doctors. Diovan is one of the company’s biggest moneymakers, especially in Japan where it generates ¥100 billion in sales.

Novartis isn’t the only drugmaker who does well with high blood pressure medications in Japan. Sales of hypertensive drugs amounts to more than ¥1 trillion a year, so even if Novartis had been trying to get researchers to post better results for their medicine, it seems that there’s enough of a market for every pharmaceutical company to make a lot of money with HBP medication. Some doctors, in fact, question the ease with which their colleagues prescribe HBP drugs.

In his bestseller, Isha ni korosarenai 47 no kokoroe (“47 Tips to Prevent Being Killed by Your Doctor”), controversial radiologist Dr. Makoto Kondo points out that there are 40 million people in Japan being treated for high blood pressure compared to 16 million in 1998. Why the big increase? In 2000, the health ministry, on recommendation from a panel of blood pressure specialists, changed the index for diagnosing HBP from 160/95 to 140/90, which is more in line with world standards. The new index immediately added 21 million people to the ranks of patients with high blood pressure, and almost all were prescribed hypertensive medication. Before the change, sales of HBP medicines was about ¥200 billion a year. Revenues have since climbed by more than fivefold. Kondo claims in his book that the specialists association from which the advisory panel was selected received an “anonymous” donation from a group of pharmaceutical companies beforehand.

Kondo believes that the dangers of high blood pressure have always been exaggerated, since blood vessels naturally become less elastic as people age and therefore the heart has to pump harder to achieve proper circulation. Reducing blood pressure too much can actually be dangerous, he says, since that could mean blood not reaching the brain and extremities in proper amounts, which may lead to senility and chronic loss of equilibrium. He cites a study in Finland that found elderly men with blood pressure over 160 lived longer than did those with blood pressure under 140. (Though it should also be noted that a more recent study in Finland found that people diagnosed with HBP who fail to take their meds have a higher chance of stroke.)

Kondo’s theories are generally dismissed by the medical community, but the Kyoto University scandal highlights an inconvenient truth about the financial connections between medical providers and pharmacuetical companies. Kondo says he has studied the literature extensively and cannot find reliable data that actually shows that a reduction in blood pressure leads to a reduction in the incidence of heart disease and stroke. Meanwhile, the Japanese government spends ¥37 trillion a year on medical care in the form of taxes and insurance payments, ¥6.14 trillion of which goes to drugs. That means hypertension medications account for one-sixth of all prescription drug sales in Japan.

Golf courses adjust to harsher economics and changing demographics

Monday, July 22nd, 2013

A fairway of your own

A fairway of your own

Of all the cultural phenomena that marked the bubble era of 1980s Japan, none was more economically significant than the rise of golf. Despite its relatively small land area, Japan boasts the third largest number of golf courses in the world — 2,442 as of 2008, which accounts for 7 percent of the earth’s total (the U.S., number one, has 50 percent, with the U.K. a distant second with 8 percent).

The majority of these courses were built before 1990, when land prices were at their highest. However, what really demonstrated the profligacy of the time wasn’t so much the insane number of courses in a country where 70 percent of the land is mountainous, but the practice of investing in golf memberships. The “bubble,” of course, refers to the artificially high valuation of real estate and securities during this time, a situation that extended to almost anything that attracted investment, including golf memberships, which could be brokered as if they were stocks or bonds. Many people who had no interest at all in golf as a pastime bought golf club memberships simply as an investment.

As with all investments made during a bubble period, people who bought them got burned. According to the Kanto Golf Membership Trading Industry Association, the average price of a golf club membership in the seven prefectures that make up the greater metropolitan area in and around Tokyo rose from ¥5 million in 1980 to almost ¥50 million in 1990 and then dropped to ¥2.5 million in 2003. The price spiked briefly in 2006 at ¥5 million before plummeting to ¥1.45 in early 2012. However, it has risen slightly since then and is now around ¥1.8 million.

Continue reading about the dropping prices golf memberships →

Retailers and restaurants get slippery with unagi prices

Tuesday, July 16th, 2013

July 22 is doyo no ushi no hi — day of the ox.” It is not a holiday to mark the cultural contributions of bovine, but rather a reminder that there are 18 more days until a seasonal change, during which falls the day of the ox — one of the signs of the Chinese zodiac. Traditionally in Japan people eat grilled eel (unagi), on this day, because it is believed that eel strengthens physical stamina during the hottest days of summer. But this year foodies and purveyors of unagi are faced with a problem, since eel in the wild is becoming increasingly scarce and may soon end up on a list of endangered species. The fisheries agency reports that the amount of eel fry bought by wholesalers in Japan this year has averaged 25 percent less than last year.

Yield to eel: Banners promoting unadon outside Sukiya

Yield to eel: Banners promoting unadon outside Sukiya

So it was definitely surprising when Daiei, one of Japan’s major supermarket chains, announced on July 11 that it would be selling packaged unagi kabayaki (grilled eel) in its stores for 20 percent less than last summer’s price on July 13-15 and July 20-22. According to Asahi Shimbun the price of unagi fry is now as much as 6.5 times what it was in 2009.

In most retail outlets, the price of prepared grilled eel is 26 percent higher than it was last summer. Usually, unagi that goes on sale in July is bought by Daiei in bulk sometime after January of the same year. It is then processed and frozen by a contractor. However, anticipating the rise in prices Daiei bought its unagi last fall and asked its contractor to carry out processing and freezing “when it had the time to do so,” thus saving money. Also, Daiei usually buys unagi for lunch boxes and unagi for packaged sushi separately, but this year they bought unagi for both at the same time in bulk, saving even more money.

But the real reason they can charge less is because they want to. Daiei admits that it will lose money during these two three-day periods by selling unagi kabayaki for 20 percent less. The supermarket is using unagi as a loss leader, a means of getting customers into its stores, where they will buy other things. And it seems to be working. Daiei started accepting pre-orders last month. Another market chain, Seiyu, announced that despite increases in wholesale prices, it will sell domestic unagi kabayaki at the same price as last summer: ¥1,470 for 140 grams. Seiyu expects sales to be 10 percent higher than last year.

Restaurants, on the other hand, seem to have no choice but to raise prices, but the amount of increase depends on the type of eatery. Asahi says that Tokyo ryotei — upscale, reservation-only restaurants — have increased unagi dishes by about ¥400 since last year, and famous restaurants that specialize in unagi have raised prices by as much as ¥1,000 per dish.

However, chain restaurants are trying to keep the increase to a minimum. Many sushi chains that usually charge ¥100 per plate serve unaju (grilled eel over rice) in the summertime, though usually only for takeout. One of these chains, Kura Sushi, is advertising unadon (eel over rice in a bowl) for only ¥598. That’s pretty cheap compared to gyudon (beef bowl) chains, which also do good business with unadon in the summer. Sukiya, the biggest gyudon chain, is selling unadon for ¥780, while Yoshinoya has increased its eel bowl ¥30 since last summer to ¥680. In 2010 it was only ¥500. Both Sukiya and Yoshinoya buy their unagi from China, but insist that they supervise the raising and harvest themselves, without relying on middlemen, to ensure quality.

Summer travel biz shows signs of recovery

Friday, July 12th, 2013

So close, and so far away

So close, and so far away

According to statistics released by Japan Travel Bureau on July 3, overseas travel this summer is projected to be up by 5.8 percent from last year, though continued sour relations with China and South Korea have seen fewer Japanese travelers this year to those two destinations. Another important consideration that doesn’t seem to have had a bad effect is the higher value of the dollar and other currencies against the yen. In terms of numbers, 2.6 million have reservations to travel overseas between July 15 and Aug. 31. The main bright spot is Europe, which will see a 15 percent boost in Japanese visitors as opposed to 2012. Also, Southeast Asia seems to be maintaining its popularity as a vacation spot. The average amount of money being spent per person on foreign travel this summer is ¥243,000, which is ¥11,800 more than was spent in 2012.

In addition, 76.2 million people have domestic travel plans this summer that involve more than one night away from home, which is the highest number since 2000. Even better, the average amount of money spent per person for these trips is ¥35,010, or ¥1,280 more than last summer. Several circumstances are credited with pushing up these numbers: the 30th anniversary of Tokyo Disney Resort; renovations to Ise Shrine in Mie Prefecture and Izumo Shrine in Shimane Prefecture; and Mount Fuji’s recent listing as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site and the intense media coverage that preceded it.

Continue reading about the recovery of tourism in Japan →

Kanebo recall illustrates built-in resilience of cosmetics industry

Monday, July 8th, 2013

White is might: The Sex and the City cast plug their second movie in Tokyo, 2010

White is might: The Sex and the City cast plug their second movie in Tokyo, 2010

Last week, cosmetics giant Kanebo, along with two subsidiaries, announced it was recalling 54 skincare products that are believed to cause unsightly blotches. The merchandise under scrutiny contains an active whitening ingredient called Rhododenol that the company first started marketing in 2008, and it estimates that some 250,000 women in Japan alone use it on a regular basis. Since 2008, 4.36 million units have been shipped and probably about 450,000 may still be in use, including in foreign countries like Thailand and Taiwan. The Philippines, in fact, reacted to the recall by banning all Kanebo products that contained Rhododenol.

On the surface, the size of the problem sounds formidable, since Kanebo will lose some ¥5 billion on account of the recall. Asahi Shimbun reports that the company has not released sales figures for the disputed line of products, but it is believed Kanebo’s annual revenues for skin whitening agents is around ¥190 billion. Consequently, the company is not losing that much, and if one wanted to make a gambling analogy, it obviously pays to market substances that aren’t guaranteed in the long run since so much money can be made in the short run. It all depends on what people want and how badly they want it.

Women’s cosmetics, and whitening products in particular, are no-lose propositions in Japan. The main market right now is middle aged consumers, who, according to a recent article in Aera, buy almost any anti-aging product that goes on the market. This practice is now called keshohin kurujingu, or “makeup cruising.” The article profiles several women, housewives and working women, all in their 40s and 50s, who spend an average of ¥50,000 a month on cosmetics.

Continue reading about the strength of the cosmetics industry →

Deflation watch: Kabocha

Monday, July 1st, 2013

Japanese pumpkin, raw and prepared

Japanese pumpkin, raw and prepared

The main story at the heart of Abenomics as far as the Japanese media is concerned is that Japanese exporters are making more money since the Liberal Democratic Party regained power. Secondarily, energy costs are rising thanks to a related increase in the dollar against the yen, not to mention imported wheat prices, which affect all sorts of processed foods in Japan. Many food-related manufacturers started raising prices on July 1 as a result.

So far, the price of imported fresh produce hasn’t been affected that much. Last year we reported on the very low price of bananas due to specific circumstances, and since then the price has gone up quite a bit owing to a typhoon that destroyed much of the Philippines’ crop. However, the prices of other fruits and vegetables that tend to be imported in large amounts haven’t changed significantly. If anything, some local produce may have come down in price and thus become more competitive, notably kabocha, the Japanese style of pumpkin, often called buttercup squash in English.

Kabocha is grown in Japan but is mainly available in the fall and early winter. During the rest of the year it is imported mainly Mexico and New Zealand, but also from New Caledonia and South Korea. Demand is so strong that Japanese companies have been running farms in these countries for almost 20 years to grow kabocha exclusively. New Zealand first started exporting the vegetable to Japan in 1988. Actually, China, India and Russia produce much more pumpkin and other types of squash but the kind they grow is not necessarily popular here. (Also, there seems to be some issue with China’s use of agrichemicals.) Japanese prefer a strain referred to as kuri-kabocha, which is drier.

Normally, the price of Japanese kabocha is two to three times that of the imported kind. In April at the Tokyo Central Produce Market, domestic kabocha was going for ¥356 per kg, while foreign kabocha was only about ¥97. However, lately the price of Japanese kabocha has come down to almost even with foreign kabocha, which is a remarkable drop. Last week at our local supermarket kabocha from Mexico was only a little less expensive than kabocha grown in Ibaraki Prefecture. It’s not clear if this is due to higher import prices because of the rising dollar or just that the domestic product is suddenly cheaper. It’s probably both, since Japanese farmers have to contend with Mexican kabocha almost year-round now that there are two growing seasons for kabocha in Mexico.

Also, kabocha, once a standard item in the Japanese diet, lost popularity some years ago and seems to be making a big comeback now among health-conscious families — kabocha contains more calcium than milk does — so farmers are producing as much as they can, thus bringing the price down.

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