The Portman Group's new guidance: we must ask questions

Andrew Misell | August 2019 | 7 minutes

In July 2019 the Portman Group made the welcome announcement that it will encourage all alcohol producers to state the 14 units a week low-risk guidelines on their packaging - but there are questions to ask.

People of a certain age will recall an advertising campaign by the Times newspaper under the slogan “Have you ever wished you were better informed?” Julius Caesar about to get stabbed in the back by Brutus, a donkey straining for a carrot on a stick, a man drowning in quicksand. All these misfortunes could have been avoided, according to the campaign’s creators, if only the protagonists had more information about their situation.

Drinks industry watchdog the Portman Group has decided to “encourage all alcohol producers” to state on their product labels that it is “safest not to drink more than 14 units per week,” reversing the Group’s 2017 decision to drop unit guidance as a labelling requirement.

It seems that, from now on, we’re all going to be a bit better informed. Drinks industry watchdog the Portman Group has decided to “encourage all alcohol producers” to state on their product labels that it is “safest not to drink more than 14 units per week,” reversing the Group’s 2017 decision to drop unit guidance as a labelling requirement. Since then, we and many others have been telling the Portman Group that the unit guidance should be included. We know that consumers want this information, and that there is a real need for it. So, it would be misguided not to welcome this new change of policy. However, it would equally misguided just to give everyone a pat on the back and not ask any questions.

It would be misguided not to welcome this new change of policy. However, it would equally misguided just to give everyone a pat on the back and not ask any questions. The first question has to be, ‘Is that all?’

The first question has to be, ‘Is that all?’ Giving consumers more information on drinks labels is a good thing. People have a right to know what they’re consuming and what it might do to them. But the Portman Group acknowledge that “labels are only one means through which to communicate information.” It will be interesting to see what else they have in mind to fulfil their commitment to “do everything we can to promote moderation.”

The Portman Group’s new policy offers a real opportunity for drinks producers to rethink the information on their packaging and make it bigger, clearer and easier to find.

The next question is, ‘How are you planning on doing it?’ Or, in other words, ‘Are you planning on sticking to current labelling formats and just squeezing a message about 14 units in there somewhere?’ Hopefully not. Research by the University of South Wales in 2018 found that health-related information, such as unit content, was almost always on the back on bottles and cans – the very place that consumers are least likely to look. This followed findings by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in 2015 that information on alcoholic drinks was often unclear and too small to read. The Portman Group’s new policy offers a real opportunity for drinks producers to rethink the information on their packaging and make it bigger, clearer and easier to find.

And finally, there are some quite fundamental questions about how and why this change in labelling policy has occurred. In 2011, the Portman Group said that the official unit guidance should be displayed on alcohol labels. In 2017, the Group dropped the guidelines from their list of minimum labelling requirements. Now, in 2019, the guidelines are back on the list. Changing your mind in the face of new evidence is a good thing. But is that what’s happened here?

The new requirement to display the unit guidance will join the other three elements picked by the Portman Group as their “minimum content for primary packaging”: the number of units of alcohol in each container; a message or image about not drinking when pregnant; and “active signposting” to drinkaware.co.uk. Just as we don’t really know why the unit guidance is back in favour, the Portman Group have never explained why they picked these three items over any others. Did they weigh up the options and carefully choose the elements known to have the greatest impact; are they the elements the Group’s members are most comfortable with; or is the truth somewhere in the middle? Who knows? And that’s the problem.

There is still a pressing need to move to a system of regulation based on evidence, openness, and accountability – one where decisions have to be explained and justified in terms of how they will contribute to reducing alcohol-related harm.

So, however welcome any changes to the ways alcoholic drinks are labelled may be, there is still a pressing need to move to a system of regulation based on evidence, openness, and accountability – one where decisions have to be explained and justified in terms of how they will contribute to reducing alcohol-related harm.