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 thoughts on “Guidelines are only guidelines”

  1. 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

    1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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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