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alcohol health alliance uk

Balance calls for an end to industry self-policing

Bottles of beer

Bottles of beer

Posted 06/07/18

Balance is calling for an end to the alcohol industry “self-policing” the complaints process about its own marketing – including complaints of appealing to children or promoting heavy drinking.

It comes as a major report calls for a thorough overhaul of alcohol marketing regulation as part of the UK Government’s new national alcohol strategy, including alcohol marketing being regulated by an independent body and not the industry.

The report Fit for Purpose? An analysis of the role of the Portman Group in alcohol industry self-regulation is by the charity Alcohol Concern and Alcohol Research UK and shows the results of an investigation into 12 years of decisions (from January 2006 to December 2017) by the Portman Group’s Complaints Panel, on the naming, packaging and promotion of alcohol products.

In the North East around 16,500 11-15 year olds drink on a regular basis and 9,300 have been drunk in the previous month.

Colin Shevills, Director of Balance, said: “Alcohol marketing is all around us – at home while we watch the World Cup, on billboards, and on front of store displays in our supermarkets. We’re constantly being told alcohol is a normal part of everyday life.

“Children are consuming large amounts of alcohol marketing and evidence shows children as young as 10 can readily identify alcohol brands and logos.

“Big Alcohol’s number one priority is to sell more, and its marketing works hard to do that. So it seems incredible we would allow Big Alcohol to rule on complaints about its own marketing.

He added: “This report suggests the current system is highly inconsistent and is not working. Alcohol marketing, including product and packaging design, should be taken out of the hands of Big Alcohol and regulated by an independent body.”

One example in the report was the Panel ruling in 2011 that two sweet-tasting, vodka-based drinks branded as “Jaffa Cakes” and “Kola Kubez” did not appeal to children. The Panel has also previously ruled that teddy bears can be acceptable alcohol marketing devices.

And in 2016, when looking at Heineken’s tie-in with the James Bond franchise, the Panel stated that it “could not find any reason why the…James Bond brand would lead consumers to believe that the product may suggest an association with sexual success/activity”.

The industry-funded Portman Group was established in 1989 and has been a key regulator of alcohol marketing since 1996. It hosts an Independent Complaints Panel which adjudicates on complaints against the naming, packaging and promotion of alcoholic drinks according to a Code of Practice.

The investigation found that:
• The Panel’s decision-making has been inconsistent, meaning that neither producers nor consumers can rely on it for guidance about what’s acceptable and what’s not.
• Its decisions often appear to be based on opinion rather than real-world evidence about how people drink.
• The Portman Group lacks accountability. When decisions are made and enforced, there is little or no means to amend or reverse them, nor any other body to appeal to.
• The purpose of the Portman Group is not well-defined, other than a vague statement about ‘responsible marketing’ and in particular its role in reducing alcohol-related harm is neither clear nor explicit

Members of the Alcohol Health Alliance expressed concern when in 2017 The Portman Group removed the requirement that the revised Chief Medical Officer’s drinking guidelines to drink no more than 14 units a week was included on alcohol products. This health advice was designed to help consumers drink at low risk levels and is most easily understood if it is on product labels.

The AHA will be writing to ministers calling on them to put alcohol marketing regulation on a statutory footing and to introduce the kinds of restrictions being proposed in part two of the obesity strategy which are designed to protect children from fast food marketing.