Some people argue that self-regulation can never be as effective as formal legislation because companies will always act in their short term self-interest. While it’s true that business leaders make largely rational choices about future products, campaigns and investment, such a belief fails to recognise the long term reputational damage to industries that fail to take steps proactively to ensure they are tackling harm associated with their products and demonstrating their commitment to social responsibility.
In no sector is this seen more clearly than in alcohol production and retailing. Having established the Portman Group almost thirty years ago to provide visible leadership around self-regulation, it is the industry that was ahead of the curve and takes social responsibility seriously. Alcohol producers are harmed by images of drunkenness, immoderate consumption and the related harms it can bring.
Over the last few years the industry has voluntarily removed more than one billion units of alcohol from the UK market. It’s investing tens of millions of pounds in developing and promoting low and no-alcohol products to support people looking to reduce their alcohol consumption, while still enjoying a great tasting drink. It supports a range of initiatives to make the night time economy more enjoyable, diverse and safer, so that a good night out isn’t tainted by a few people drinking too much. As the industry’s regulator and an organisation committed to promoting responsible drinking, it’s our job to support producers to keep raising the bar across the industry.
Last year we published updated industry guidance on product labelling following changes to the UK drinking guidelines. Our biggest challenge this year is to deliver an updated set of rules to respond to industry and societal change. We are currently consulting on whether it’s time for a new rule on serious and widespread offence – potentially on the grounds of sex, race or religion, for example. Also, in light of the change to the chief medical officer’s drinking guidance from daily to weekly units, we’d like views on how best to define immoderate consumption. We need to hear from the widest range of people to make sure that our code strikes the right balance of protecting consumers while supporting responsible and innovative producers. This includes producers, retailers, charity and health professionals and everybody else with an interest in the future of alcohol marketing.
Looking back to last year, three out of the five cases referred to the Independent Complaints Panel were around the use of nostalgia-based designs with complainants concerned that references to retro sweets, clothes and cartoons could have particular appeal to children. This has been a popular trend in marketing for a number of years and it connects with consumers on a powerful emotional level. References to the sweets, clothes and cartoons that we enjoyed in childhood have a strong appeal to us as adults but marketers selling alcohol need to be extremely careful they don’t inadvertently also appeal to today’s children. We understand that adults today are enjoying youth culture for longer, and we’re not trying to take the fun and creativity out of marketing, but we need producers to remember that if they draw on children’s culture, no matter how retro, they need to do so with great care.
It’s precisely because of the complexity of decisions such as this that we offer a free and confidential advice service for producers and their design agencies to help ensure producers don’t inadvertently end up the wrong side of the line.
We’re also seeing a real boom in the popularity of low and no-alcohol products. The impending expiration of current guidance around their definitions has acted as a catalyst for a rethink of descriptors for this important category of drinks. We feel strongly that more support should be given to the development of ‘low and no’ drinks because of the role they play in encouraging people to drink responsibly. There are currently four descriptors in use which are confusing for both producers and consumers to navigate. Bringing the UK’s alcohol-free threshold up to 0.5% from where it currently sits at 0.05% will bring UK regulations in line with existing practice in the majority of European countries – this will create a level playing field for UK producers and will also give consumers greater clarity as they make purchasing choices.
Enlightened and ambitious producers recognise that self-regulation isn’t a burden – it’s an opportunity for producers to set and maintain high industry standards and prevent irresponsible products and marketing from tainting their reputation. Marketing rules aren’t there to stifle innovation but to protect vulnerable consumers and drive up standards. We want to play a positive part in reducing the harmful use of alcohol but also to highlight that measures to tackle this should be targeted and proportionate, and avoid penalising the majority who enjoy a drink responsibly. I passionately believe it is in the best interest of producers, whether they’re large multinationals or tiny microbrewers.
John Timothy is chief executive of the Portman Group