SIBA blasts alcohol watchdog’s consumption guidelines

By Nikkie Sutton

- Last updated on GMT

Key change: the new rules from The Portman Group include a unit-based definition for 'immoderate consumption'
Key change: the new rules from The Portman Group include a unit-based definition for 'immoderate consumption'
New guidance on alcohol consumption from The Portman Group has been criticised by the Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA) because it could “damage the market for speciality beers”.

The Portman Group has published the sixth version of its Code of Practice on the Naming, Packaging and Promotion of Alcoholic Drinks​.

Key changes made to the code include the addition of a new rule to prevent offensive marketing and a new unit-based definition for immoderate consumption, following the change to weekly drinking guidelines set by the Chief Medical Officer (CMO).

The updated code will come into force this September, giving producers and marketers six months to prepare for the changes, which are:

  • Drinks producers need to be mindful when referencing race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability and age on packaging or promotional material to ensure the drink’s name or marketing doesn’t cause serious or widespread offence
  • Protection of the vulnerable has been explicitly added as an overarching principle of the code
  • The code advises that single-serve, non-resealable containers shouldn’t be more than four alcohol units, following the change in the CMO guidelines from daily to weekly guidance. The Portman Group said this establishes a new and credible definition for assessing complaints about irresponsible sampling promotions or packaging such as single-serve, non-resealable containers. Mitigating factors for products up to six units such as premium status, pricing and share message inclusion may be taken into account
  • A product should not suggest any association with illegal behaviour. This has been added to the code to prohibit association with bravado or violent, aggressive, dangerous or antisocial behaviour. It prohibits any link between alcohol marketing and contemporary illegal behaviour and the glamorising of criminal activity
  • The code now also includes the rule that a product should not claim to have mind-altering qualities or suggest it will change mood or behaviour.

The Portman Group chief executive John Timothy said: “In completing this review, we have been conscious throughout of the need to drive up standards and provide better protection for consumers while, at the same time, supporting producers to innovate and bring forward new and exciting brands and products.

“Our latest code update reflects changes in the industry and wider society and strikes the right balance between protection and creative freedom.”

Responsible marketing

Timothy added: “I am particularly pleased we have been able to establish a common-sense approach to defining immoderate consumption, setting a unit-based threshold but providing flexibility for the Independent Complaints Panel to consider the product in its wider context.

“There was strong support in the consultation to introduce a new rule around offence, showing the industry understands that responsible marketing needs to evolve in line with changing standards in society.”

Wild Card Brewery head brewer Jaega Wise thanked everyone who had campaigned on this issue and said she was delighted The Portman Group had taken steps to include discriminatory marketing in its code of practice.

She added: “It is an important change that will make a big difference to how beer in particular is marketed especially with regards to women.”

However, SIBA claimed that while much of the updated code is sensible and includes new measures to prevent alcohol packaging causing serious or widespread offence, protection for the vulnerable in society and preventing associating alcohol with illegal behaviour, the new guidance on ‘immoderate consumption’ could be damaging for independent craft brewers.

SIBA chief executive Mike Benner said: “Today’s new guidance on the ‘immoderate consumption’ rule threatens new, innovative speciality beer styles like Imperial stouts, porters, IPAs and British interpretations of traditional strong Belgian styles – many of which are now being packaged in large cans designed for sharing and sold at a premium price point.

“SIBA is disappointed The Portman Group is pressing ahead to introduce new guidance, which says that ‘single-serve’, non-resealable containers shouldn’t contain more than four units of alcohol.

“SIBA, as the responsible trade association for British independent craft brewers understands some products like super-strong cheap lagers and ciders are abused by some members of society.

“We recognise this is a problem that causes massive harm to families, individuals and communities and costs the NHS millions of pounds every year.”

Immoderate consumption

Benner also called for more to be done prevent super-strong cheap lagers and ciders being abused but claimed The Portman Group’s new rules will not address preventing the problem of  ‘immoderate consumption’.

He added: “When you consider an average bottle of wine at 14% ABV contains 10 units of alcohol and a small bottle of spirits contains 14 units at 40% ABV, then why target craft beers of only four units?

“As we know, beers like Imperial stouts and IPAs may have stronger ABVs than a ‘regular’ beer but the strength is an integral component of their flavour and the style. Our research shows the intention from the brewer – that they are savoured, enjoyed slowly and shared is matched by what consumers actually do. Their price point is radically different.

“We welcome the fact that during the consultation process The Portman Group has partly listened to SIBA’s concerns and has included ‘mitigating factors’ such as price, premium nature of the product, decanting and sharing messages in any future rulings.

“But we still have significant concerns about the impact the unit-based definition will have on craft brewers. SIBA will be seeking an urgent meeting with The Portman Group to discuss the impact of this new guidance.

“The Portman Group will also be at SIBA BeerX UK in Liverpool to present on the code and answer brewers’ questions and feedback.”

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