Fit for Purpose? An analysis of the role of the Portman Group in alcohol industry self-regulation

English | Cymraeg

6 July 2018

Note: This report was funded and/or written by our predecessor organisation Alcohol Concern.


The Portman Group was established in 1989 and has been a key regulator of alcohol marketing since 1996. The group hosts an Independent Complaints Panel which adjudicates on complaints against the naming, packaging and promotion of alcoholic drinks according to a Code of Practice.

From 2006 to 2017, the Panel published a total of 99 decisions on alleged breaches of its Code of Practice. This report presents an analysis of those 99 decisions. It finds that, while a number of Panel decisions have been effective in removing products that breach the Code from the market:

  • The Panel’s decision-making has not always been consistent over time.
  • Its decisions have often appeared subjective, and not based on an explicit presentation of the rationale, or the evidence underpinning the deliberations.
  • There is a lack of Panel oversight and scrutiny, which means that regardless of the independence or quality of individual members, the overall process is not held to public account.

We conclude that, in light of the scale and potential impact of alcohol marketing across society, its regulation would be better served by a fully independent body that is subject to much greater levels of public accountability and scrutiny. This would drive up the consistency of decision-making, more explicitly apply research evidence to the mechanisms of marketing influence, and operate more robust appeals processes.

The Codes of Practice of a fully independent regulator would be explicitly established not only to prevent and enforce breaches of good practice, but also to contribute to the reduction of alcohol-related harm. It would also need the scope to consider the promotion of individual products in the context of the wider marketing mix. Currently, this responsibility is divided between the Advertising Standards Authority and the Portman Group.

The establishment of an independent regulator, operating on a statutory basis, would oblige the regulator to answer fully to the public and Parliament. It would protect the decision-making integrity of the panel, avoiding any perception that its decisions are conflicted by links to the alcohol industry or other interests.

This report presents what are intended to be constructive criticisms of current practice, which recognise that any complaints panel of this kind is engaged in complex and contentious work, which is unlikely to satisfy all stakeholders. However, its fundamental conclusion is that self-regulation is not appropriate to the alcohol market, not only because it weakens the capacity for proper scrutiny and oversight, but because the goals of tackling the detrimental social impacts of irresponsible alcohol marketing are by definition often in conflict with the goals of alcohol marketeers.

The UK Government should therefore, as part of its proposed Alcohol Strategy, establish a root-and-branch review of alcohol marketing regulation, covering the existing functions of the Portman Group, the Advertising Standards Authority and other relevant bodies. This review should establish clearly the basis on which the regulation of alcohol marketing should be carried out; how a regulatory body should address the unique challenges of a complex, multi-platform landscape; and how public scrutiny, impartiality and commitment to evidence can best be ensured.