Five years is a long time in drinks retailing - and the world has changed a lot
since RDR launched in 2003. Off Licence News investigates
Back in 2003, when the Responsible Drinks Retailing campaign was launched, the hope was that, by acting together and sharing best practice, the trade could prove to politicians and the media that it cared very deeply about its role in society.
Five years on, the trade has made some gigantic leaps - but is still working hard to convince ministers and commentators that it has no interest in encouraging people to drink more than is good for them, or in selling alcohol to children.
New challenges have emerged: the threatened reforms in Scotland could completely change the way alcohol is bought and sold; medical groups have banded together under the banner of the Alcohol Health Alliance to attack many aspects of trade activity, and now the Department of Health is examining whether it should impose a mandatory code of conduct on the drinks industry.
But for anyone who thinks the trade has been dragging its heels, here are some of the initiatives which have appeared since 2003.
Retail of Alcohol Standards Group
Formed in 2005 following a meeting between leading retailers and the Home Secretary, RASG was created as a unified off-trade response to tackling alcohol-related harm and sales to minors. The group launched the universal "Under 21?" signage, designed to support the Challenge 21 approach .
RASG continues to lead the industry response to the government's challenge that all stakeholders should aim to eliminate under-age sales. RASG's work is fully supported by the Home Office, the Department of Culture, Media & Sport and the Department of Health.
Social responsibility standards
In 2005, 16 trade associations jointly published their Social Responsibility Standards for the Production and Sale of Alcoholic Drinks in the UK. The document set out the guiding principles, drawn up following discussions with government -
includ ing the promotion of sensible drinking messages, rigorous training for staff and steps to keep alcohol away from children.
Even retailers not aligned to the big industry initiatives are now routinely applying Challenge 21 principles -
now prefer Challenge 25. The BBPA
more than 350,000 Challenge 21 posters to British pubs.
The PASS scheme
ID cards once created widespread confusion in the trade - there was a plethora of different schemes and it was all too easy for retailers to mistake a fraudulent card for a genuine one. The PASS scheme was launched in 2003 because fake proof-of-age cards were becoming a widespread national problem. It was agreed that a single recognisable logo would be included on all PASS -accredited proof-of-age cards. PASS is backed by the government and also supported by authoritative organisations, including the Association of Chief Police Officers
and the Trading Standards Institute.
Beginning life as a Portman Group campaign, Drinkaware has now been transformed into an independent, self-governing trust.
The charity was set up in 2007 to improve
awareness and understanding about responsible drinking and
to change the nation's drinking behaviour.
includ e alcohol experts from the health, education and voluntary sectors as well as from the drinks industry. They are tasked with
delivering a programme to promote responsible drinking and with providing project aid for local and national initiatives for tackling alcohol harm.
In May 2007 the Department of Health reached a voluntary agreement with the drinks industry to include alcohol unit content on packaging, and government guidelines for lower-risk drinking on the majority of labels by the end of 2008. It also asked for warnings against drinking while pregnant.
This was backed by the government's Know Your Limits awareness campaign.
According to the Department of Health, the trade has not lived up to its commitments, with a "disappointing" 57% of products carrying alcohol unit content and only 3% carrying all the information that had been discussed.
The door is now open to a mandatory labelling scheme. "The government plans to proceed with second-stage monitoring late in 2008," the DoH warns in its latest Safe, Sensible, Social discussion document. "We
hope that the majority of labels will carry the required information by the end of 2008 ."
In-house test purchasing
Now that test purchasing is a fact of life for many off-licences and pubs, more companies are opting to use agencies to conduct their own in-house schemes.
Convenience retailers like Bell's led the way five years ago - now almost all the major players use some form of test purchasing to ensure they are working to the highest standards.
David Sands, the Scottish convenience store operator, is among them. Security manager Charles Hamilton says: "Most licensed convenience stores will have training programmes to combat the sale of alcohol to youngsters, but those initiatives
not enough. Due diligence can be achieved only by proactively test-purchasing staff - it's not enough for a
policy to be written at senior management level and to expect automatic compliance . A visit to the coal face may uncover a minefield of disappointments."
He adds: "We use an 18-year-old member of staff and we'll visit 10 or 12 stores in an evening. It's something we take very seriously - it's our aim to test every one of our 500-600 staff at least once in a 12-month period."
Strengthened Portman code
From January 2008, the Portman Group's code of practice has been further strengthened with bans on any encouragement to drink quickly, and on drinks sponsors appearing on children's replica football shirts (Carling had already voluntarily withdrawn its name from Rangers and Celtic junior shirts).
Although companies now tend to seek pre-launch clearance from Portman before introducing new brands and labels, meaning the independent complaints panel has to clamp down on relatively few transgressors, Portman devotes a lot of time and resources to encouraging companies and individuals to report products which flout the code.
These days, TV commercials for alcoholic drinks will generally contain a sensible drinking message. But some big
producers have gone further. Both Coors and Diageo have commissioned advertising which is
encourage people to drink in moderation. A Scottish ad for Carling, featuring the Rangers and Celtic managers, encouraged drinkers "not to hit the bar too often". Diageo had already tried to make drinkers think carefully about their intake with its "now would be a good time to stop" theme.
While the government's chief medical officer debates how best to spread the sensible drinking message among children and their parents, the BII has already made huge progress. Its Schools Project allows companies, including retailers, to sponsor alcohol education discussions in local schools, while its Level 1 Certificate in Alcohol Awareness, aimed at 13 to 16
olds, has been passed by hundreds of students.