Drinks industry acts on age old problem

The drinks industry is attacking under-age drinking. But is the reinvigorated Portman Group the best way to tackle it?

The drinks manufacturers’ search to find new, younger drinkers to replace those who have moved on to other pursuits was always going to be controversial.

If you make alcohol more appealing to the young through the products, the advertising and imagery, there will be an inevitable backlash. So it should be no surprise that the industry, tarred with some unpleasant names recently, stands accused of encouraging children to drink, and young people to drink too much.

But the organisation set up by the drinks industry in 1989 to promote “sensible” drinking, the Portman Group, is fighting back. The drinks companies have decided it is time for action, with a string of initiatives including taskforces to cut out under-age drinking (MW July 19).

They have drafted in a seasoned campaigner, Jean Coussins, as a replacement for outgoing Portman Group director John Rae. Coussins has an impeccable background in campaigning for social causes as director of the Campaign for Racial Equality and through the Child Poverty Action Group.

Her appointment is timely. Drinks makers have come under heavy criticism for the way they market alcoholic soft drinks.

The criticism galvanised an alliance of religious leaders, all-party MPs and pressure groups venting their growing anger. They moaned about spirits being advertised on television; complained about the way alcoholic fizzy drinks such as Hooper’s Hooch are marketed to young people; and raised the spectre of unruly groups of drunken teenagers creating havoc in cities.

The criticism was inevitable but the drinks industry seemed ill-prepared to defend itself. Just one look at the success of the anti-tobacco lobby in securing advertising restrictions on cigarettes should have been a warning. A Government, either of the left or right, could make political capital out of legislating for tighter restrictions on alcohol ads.

The criticism could have a long-term effect on the brewers and distillers business activities. They are lobbying the Government on a number of key issues ranging from extending pub opening hours to cutting alcohol duties – issues which could be overshadowed by a backlash against alcohol marketing.

Now, to prove they are indeed responsible, the drinks industry is embarking on a new wave of activities.

The first is the taskforce on under-age drinking. Portman is putting 250,000 – over ten per cent of its annual budget – into setting up schemes looking at ways of stamping out the problem.

It is working with a variety of social agencies including police, magistrates and even an agony aunt from a teenage magazine. This wide-based approach is intended to give the taskforce credibility but it will appear strange that the companies which have brought us Hooper’s Hooch, jokey lemons and other imagery attractive to under-age drinkers, are now setting up taskforces to deal with a problem that has directly boosted their profits.

“There is a big public debate on the problem of under-age drinking,” says Coussins. “The taskforce concentrates on practical pilot schemes to evaluate the problem and advise the Government. We focus on what is against the law.

“There could be more rigorous implementation of existing laws. A lot of retailers are faced with a genuine problem, particularly with girls. We see this as a national exercise to pull together the impact of various schemes and make recommendations to the Government and police.”

The taskforce comes just six months after the Portman Group drew up its tepid code of practice on the marketing of alcopops. It will publish a report on the code later this summer assessing its effectiveness. “We’ll only know if manufacturers are flouting the code if there are complaints,” says Coussins. “We shall publish the outcome of complaints. So far we have had a dozen or so about naming of brands.”

But question marks remain over the Portman Group’s credibility. Its 2m annual budget far outstrips the resources available to other groups concerned with alcohol awareness, such as Alcohol Concern and Drink-line. But when compared with the 120m spent by the UK’s top eight brewers and distillers on advertising last year, it is small beer.

Alcohol Concern and Drinkline, both funded by the Department of Health and charitable donations, publicly welcome the work of the Portman Group on under-age drinking. But insiders say the Portman Group’s remit is too narrow to deal with the problems of alcohol in society.

Sarah Berger, director of Drink-line, says: “It may not be an appropriate body to regulate and control the industry on its own. It is tempting for the Government to think that it has been let off the hook by the Portman Group. Portman has trumpeted the code of practice on alcopops, but we still need to be convinced. Alcopops are still very appealing to under 18s.”

Portman is candid about what it calls “enlightened self-interest” and admits that, unless the drinks industry moves to reduce alcohol misuse, “governments may impose across the board restrictions on its marketing freedoms”.

The events of the next few months will be crucial for Portman. If its code of conduct on alcopops turns out to be a damp squib, there will be a clamour of voices calling for legislation. Alcohol marketing and advertising will come under increasing scrutiny.

A lot is now riding on the ability of Coussins to persuade interested groups and the wider public that the drinks industry is responsible. Failure to do so could bring down the curtain on the freedoms drinks makers have to market their products in the UK.

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