Government urged to overhaul drinks marketing regulation

The government needs to undertake a ‘thorough review’ of the way alcohol marketing is currently regulated, according to a report from the charity formed by the merger of Alcohol Concern and Alcohol Research UK.

Fit for purpose? An analysis of the role of the Portman Group in alcohol industry self regulation looks at the regulatory decisions made by the group’s complaints panel over the last 12 years and states that there is ‘inconsistent decision making, lack of scrutiny and an apparent failure to address how modern alcohol marketing works’.

The Portman Group lacks accountability, the report claims, with little or no means to amend or reverse decisions and no appeals body, and with decisions often appearing to be based on ‘opinion’ rather than evidence. The group’s inconsistent decision making means that ‘neither producers nor consumers’ can rely on it for guidance, the document says, while its purpose is ill defined and amounts to little more than a ‘vague statement’ about responsible marketing. ‘Its role in reducing alcohol-related harm is neither clear nor explicit’, the charity says.

The fragmented nature of marketing regulation also plays into the hands of the industry, the report adds, with bottles and cans regulated by the Portman Group, TV sponsorship monitored by Ofcom and adverts overseen by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). ‘The regulators look at them in isolation, meaning that none of them is seeing the full picture.’

Richard Piper: ‘We have the right to set boundaries’

‘With roughly one person in the UK dying as a result of alcohol every hour, alcohol is no ordinary commodity, and we as a society have the right to set boundaries on the ways in which it is promoted,’ said CEO Dr Richard Piper.

A statement from Portman Group CEO John Timothy refutes the report’s conclusions and states that the group is ‘open and transparent’ in the way it operates and regulates. ‘Analysing apparent inconsistencies in decisions on complaints ignores changes in the industry and wider society,’ it says, adding that the group updates its code rules every few years to reflect this, such as how immoderate consumption is measured following the shift in government drinking guidelines. ‘Despite what ideologues might say, we have a regulatory system that works. Let’s not waste time, effort and energy arguing about whether it needs to be put on a statutory footing.’

However, Richard Piper stated that the current regulatory system ‘doesn’t work’ and called on the government to launch an independent review. ‘The aim must be to make alcohol regulation fit for purpose, and ensure that regulators have a clearly defined remit and standards of evidence-based decision-making. Such a review offers the perfect opportunity to better integrate the various regulatory strands, so they can be brought together to create stronger protections for all consumers.’

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