Three drinks manufacturers have been cleared over claims their super-strength booze encouraged consumers to “down in one go” products containing more than a third of the recommended weekly amount of alcohol.
In the first major test case of the Chief Medical Officer’s controversial new recommendations on harmful drinking, The Portman Group released the findings of its Independent Complaints Panel, which rejected claims concerning the potential harm caused by the Oranjeboom, Crest Super and K Cider products in question - the weakest of which was 8.4% abv.
The decision came despite the panel agreeing that the nature of the products meant it was likely drinkers would consume as much as five units of alcohol in one occasion.
In a string of copycat cases, local authorities cracking down on super-strength booze claimed advice on cans - that once opened they should be drunk rapidly so they did not lose their taste - was an invitation to start dangerous drinking.
The complaints were made by Portsmouth City Council about United Dutch breweries’ Oranjeboom’s 8.5% 500ml can and C&C’s K Cider’s 500ml can, while Medway Council went on the warpath against Wells and Young’s Crest Super 10% 500ml product.
All complaints pre-dated the CMO’s guidance, which came in last year.
The local authorities claimed the high strength of the products and the fact they carried advice to drink rapidly once opened was in breach of the Portman Code.
Portsmouth City Council said K Cider and Oranjeboom were “incredibly high strength, served in a non-resealable can and is not designed to be shared”.
“The fact that it is served in cans means that once opened they must be consumed or rapidly lose quality of taste. This encourages people to drink the entire can in one serving or have their consumer rights impinged,” it said in its evidence.
Meanwhile, Medway said the Crest Super product “once opened cannot be resealed and is typically consumed by one individual. The number of units in one can is in excess of the governments daily recommended guidelines of two to three units a day for a woman and three to four units for a man.”
However, the Portman Group delayed the cases until after the publishing of the CMO’s advice, which came into force a year ago and was approved by ministers in the summer after much wrangling with the industry.
The 2016 low-risk drinking guidelines controversially recommended that both men and women should drink no more than 14 units a week on a regular basis
However, the new guidelines also dropped the idea of having a specified limit for single drinking occasions, saying only that it was best for consumers to “spread their drinking evenly over three or more days”.
In all three cases, the panel admitted that the sale of the products meant it was likely people would drink them in a single occasion, with the strongest drink, Crest Super, containing five units in the 500ml can.
However, it said because of the absence of guidelines for a daily or single occasion drinking, the panel could not infer that consuming such drinks was immoderate.
In a further twist to the case, two of the companies involved claimed that the products had not been intended to be on sale in the first place.
United Dutch Breweries and its importer Oranjeboom UK said it had not imported the products in question since August 2014 and the panel agreed that the product must have been imported “via unidentified channels”.
Wells and Young’s said Crest Super 10% was produced exclusively for export and was never intended for the UK market and its policy was not to sell it in the UK.
It said it had identified the supplier who sold the product and found it related to a supply of the drinks dating back to June 2015.
C&C, however, defended its K Cider product. In its evidence to the panel, it claimed it was clear that immoderate or irresponsible consumption referred only to serious overindulgence such as drink driving, binge-drinking or drunkenness.
“The consumption of 4.2 units of alcohol in one sitting cannot be considered to be immoderate or irresponsible,” it said.
Secretary to the Independent Complaints Panel Kay Perry said: “Producers must keep in mind the rules of the Portman Group Code whilst designing the packaging of their products. The industry is constantly innovating, and should a producer feel unsure, the Portman Group advice team can be contacted for free and confidential advice.”