News opinion

Guidelines are only guidelines

Portman Group logo.

The Portman Group’s long-awaited revised guidelines for the naming, promotion and packaging of drinks landed yesterday, and there’s a view that they got it wrong.

First, though, there’s a bit that’s been welcomed by people like Melissa Cole and Jaega Wise, and the line everyone was waiting for:

A drink’s name, its packaging and any promotional material or activity should not cause serious or widespread offence.

That’s backed up by a separate and more detailed guidance note which adds this specific detail…

Particular care must be taken to avoid causing serious offence on the grounds of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability or age.

… while otherwise leaving things suitably vague, ready to be tested in practice if and when complaints start to come in:

The Code rules are written as broad principles. This means that the rules are not overly prescriptive and allow the Panel to interpret and apply them on a  case by case basis, taking multiple factors into account (overall impression conveyed, producer response, relevant research etc). This ensures that the Code, and its rules, are flexible to different scenarios, fit for purpose and responsive to innovation in the market…

We reckon all this leaves brewers with a fair amount of room for manoeuvre, while also providing a mechanism for challenging them. Of course the first time it’s tested will either upset free speech types (if the complaint is upheld) or the complaining classes if it isn’t, but at least the  first draft of a system is there.

Four units

Now for the bit lots of people think they got wrong: in the eternal battle against strong lagers and ciders, they’ve come up with advice on packaging that would seem to catch IPA, Belgian-style beer and other high-end products in the crossfire. Here’s the top line:

The Advisory Service recommends that 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.

Again, though, these are guidelines, not rules, and this section would seem to get as close to saying ‘PS. Does not apply to craft beer’ as could reasonably be expected:

Having more than four-units in a single-serve container will not automatically result in a product being found in breach of the Code; it is the view of the Advisory Service that the Panel is likely to take other factors into account when determining whether a product encourages immoderate consumption. It is not possible to produce an exhaustive list of mitigating factors but the Panel may consider: whether the container contained a ‘share’ message or a ‘per serve’ recommendation, how easily the container could be resealed, whether the producer was able to demonstrate that the contents were shared (by decanting) or typically consumed over more than one sitting, the premium status/quality of the product and its positioning in the market including the price at which it is generally sold, alcohol type (does the product degrade quickly once opened) and the overall impression conveyed by the product packaging (such as terminology used in the name and product description). The mitigating factors should be commensurate with the number of units (above 4 units) in the single-serve container. The Panel is also likely to take into consideration whether the packaging contains responsibility messaging, for example, the number of units in the container and a reference to the Drinkaware website.

And, one final bit of extreme devil’s advocacy: we’ve fairly frequently seen street drinkers – people obviously struggling with addiction to alcohol– with cans of BrewDog Elvis Juice at breakfast time in central Bristol. At 6.5%, and with four cans for £6 in Tesco convenience stores, it’s actually a reasonably economical and palatable way to get pissed.

So maybe the fundamental problem is the idea that there’s good booze and bad booze, when actually it’s about stable and unstable lives.

Further reading

4 replies on “Guidelines are only guidelines”

Thomas Hardy’s vintage ale at 13.5% in a 330ml bottle has 4.29 units of alcohol. A superficial search doesn’t show me who makes it, but for most brewers in the UK Portman Group rulings are non-binding. In 2015, Portman Group broke ground on this issue and several manufacturers of super strength lager were forced to adjust the ABV of products. There has been concern about local councils introducing bans on high ABV products which scoop premium products into the same category as the rocket fuels designed only for pre-loading and sustaining a dependency. All told it feels as if everyone is tip-toeing around the real problem – mass market retailers selling dangerously cheap alcohol which allows people on restricted incomes to develop and sustain dependency. No-one becomes an alcoholic overnight and most people could not afford to develop a dependency if alcohol was more expensive. As you point out, all of this will have to be tested. Let’s see if anyone makes a complaint about a premium product’s ABV first

Rulings are only non-binding if you are fortunate enough to be able to not care whether the supermarkets will take your beer or not.

The bigger question is, what problem are we actually trying to address? Which brings with it other questions: is this a big problem? Is it getting worse? What’s our ‘theory of change’, i.e. what confidence have we got that pulling these particular levers will make this particular difference – and not have offsetting costs?

The assumptions seem to be that alcohol-related harms to health are a big & growing problem, and that the solution is to attack alcohol on all fronts so as to reduce consumption across the board (an ebbing tide lowers all boats, you might say). I can’t say I’m convinced of any of these things.

The part about

the premium status/quality of the product and its positioning in the market including the price at which it is generally sold,

could actually end up being good news for brewers, albeit not for drinkers.

As always, I wonder what’s going to happen when (if?) the public health industry hits Belgium, where what we’d consider ‘premium’ beer is in sixpack-for-a-fiver territory. But perhaps those starting assumptions don’t have the same appeal in other countries.

As Christopher said, the ober dicta on single-serve containers with more than four units of alcohol isn’t new, but dates from at least 2015, but the ruling against Carlsberg Special Brew resulted in that drink being cut in the UK from 9 per cent ABV to 7 per cent. So it may not have been binding, but it had an effect. What is new is that, after the guidance on “no more than four units a day” was dropped in favour of weekly limits, the Portman Group decided it had to revisit its “no more than four units in a container” rule, and has actually made it slightly more liberal, in so far as it is now saying “give us a good reason why your container should be allowed to have so many units of alcohol and we might let you off.” But it is still saying “no more than six units”, and has declared that even a 75cl bottle of beer is “likely” to be regarded as designed to be drunk by one person, so this would still rule out any beer over 8 per cent abv in a 75cl bottle – which would catch a very large number of excellent Italian beers, for example.

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