Responsible drinking: the trade must take proper measures

Producers of high-strength beer and cider need to step up to the mark and show their commitment to behaving resposibly, says Portman Group chief executive John Timothy:

"It’s time for the industry to choose sides. If we tolerate rogue producers pushing cheap, high-strength beer and cider, don’t be surprised when the calls for tougher regulation get louder and stronger. Last month’s interview with Nigel McNally of

"Brookfield Drinks highlighted what a difficult few years it has been for producers of high- strength beer and cider. Despite reading the article several times, I’m afraid I’m struggling to muster much sympathy.

"The UK has had a long and often challenging relationship with alcohol but, after sustained efforts from socially responsible producers, as well as powerful and persistent efforts to educate and inform people about their drinking choices by partners such as Drinkaware, we are finally making a difference. Recorded alcohol consumption has fallen to its lowest levels in 30 years, binge drinking has dropped 20% since 2007 and our night-time economy has, with a few notable exceptions, become safer, cleaner, more inclusive and more enjoyable.

"This positive momentum hasn’t occurred by accident. Consumers have more information than ever about their drinking choices and the impact of drinking too much on their health and wellbeing. By and large, young people in the UK drink responsibly and at modest levels, eschewing the behaviour and choices of the generations that went before them.

"As a regulatory body, we’ve played our part to support responsible alcohol choices. As we implement the sixth edition of our Code of Practice, we look back with pride on the irresponsible products we’ve removed from the market and the unacceptable names and labels we’ve banned.

"But none of this should give producers the impression the job is complete. There remains in the UK a stubborn minority of people who drink far too much. Some of those people lead complex and unstable lives where alcohol will exacerbate a range of other challenges.

"These people need multi-agency support of the kind rolled out in Walsall and which we have worked hard to champion in recent years.

"As an industry we also need to challenge ourselves to ask if we’re doing enough, individually and collectively, to minimise the risk of harm from alcohol misuse. It’s certainly true that any product can be misused. However, there’s a combination of high strength, low price and container type that, for me, sets alarm bells ringing if we’re committed to minimising the risk of harm from alcohol.

"Much has been said about our role as a responsible self-regulator for allegedly persecuting higher-strength beer and cider products. Indeed, within last month’s article we were accused of “lending a hand” to government, local authorities and the public health community as they seek to curb the prevalence of such products.

"I want to be clear. I have no issue with high- strength beer and cider – or, for that matter, with wines and spirits. Nor am I opposed to alcohol being sold cheaply. I spent many years working in food and drink retailing and am proud of the positive role producers and retailers play in making previously niche or luxury items available to those on lower incomes. I’m not – as some might suspect – part of the “ban it” brigade. I believe passionately in freedom of choice.

"But shouldn’t we, as a responsible industry, be asking ourselves whether we want to tolerate and accept such products blighting our reputation and bringing us all into disrepute?

"A responsible alcohol industry is one that recognises the risk of harm and self- regulates to minimise risk. The survival, and even prosperity, of products that combine high strength and low price in single-serve, non-resealable containers is a failure by us all. That’s why our latest code guidance demands of producers that alcoholic containers which are typically single serve, and whose contents are typically consumed by one person in one sitting, should not contain more than four units without specific precautions, and in no circumstances should they include more than six units.

"Our new guidance is supported by the UK chief medical officers and the Department of Health & Social Care and represents a common-sense and pragmatic response to the government’s decision to move away from daily guidelines as a reference point for immoderate consumption.

"It’s also supported by our knowledge of existing consumer behaviour. Independent research commissioned by the Portman Group and conducted by You Gov in 2014 showed that 80% of adults believe a 50cl can of beer or cider is designed to be consumed by one person in one sitting, thus indicating that consumers feel compelled to consume it in one sitting regardless of the strength of the product.

"In contrast, 61% said they would share the contents of a 75cl bottle of wine with others in one sitting, and 21% shared the contents over multiple sittings.

"This shows that packaging and the type of alcohol it contains does influence consumer drinking patterns. Which is why it is important producers take all the steps they can to encourage responsible consumption of their products.

"Ensuring containers can be resealed plays into consumer expectations that a product should be enjoyed over multiple servings. Producers can reinforce this easily by placing messaging on their packaging encouraging consumers to share and including recommended serving sizes. In this way, we are able to nudge consumers away from immoderate consumption and into lower-risk drinking patterns.

"Ultimately, I believe in a vibrant and diverse alcohol industry, yet also an industry which takes its commitment to responsible drinking seriously through solid, tangible actions. I’m sorry if Nigel McNally doesn’t agree.

"But if the alcohol industry is to be taken seriously as a partner in tackling alcohol harm we must promote and implement solutions which help those drinking too much to cut their intake, while also protecting the legitimate choice of responsible consumers. It’s time for all producers to step up and take sides. Silence from within the industry offers tacit support and encouragement to those who want to sidestep their responsibilities and poses the greatest threat to the current system of self- regulation."

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