Last month DRN surveyed 400 readers on what they considered the greatest threats to the future health of the drinks industry and the anti-alcohol lobby came second.

That left it behind only future duty hikes and ahead of exchange rate issues, Brexit, disinterest among younger adults and various other concerns. We went to the Portman Group’s offices in London to talk to chief executive John Timothy about what the trade can do to redress the balance in the public debate, nullify the threat of the anti-alcohol lobby and safeguard the future health of the industry. Timothy is now nine months into the job and says it was the opportunity to bring balance to the general debate around alcohol that first attracted him to the role. 

“First and foremost, I’m a drinker,” he says. “I like drinking. I don’t apologise for being a drinker. Alcohol, drunk responsibly, is a good thing. It has certainly been a plank of all the big celebrations in my life so far, so I am interested in that. I have done some work on alcohol policy in retail as well and it interests me. But fundamentally I came because I see an opportunity to hopefully contribute more balance to the debate around alcohol. 

“What we hear predominantly at the moment is a very small proportion of people who are at the fringes, and we are not hearing from enough people speaking with common sense, striking the right balance protecting vulnerable people without impinging on the vast majority of people’s free choice to drink, and drink responsibly. I felt there was more the Portman Group could do to contribute to that discussion and on a personal level I wanted to get involved.”

He praises the work done by Drinkaware, Drinkers’ Voice and others operating in this space, and says it is “not about the Portman Group riding in to save the day”, rather it is adding its weight to the argument. 

“I am less interested in the academic, fringe debate and more interested in what message is getting out there to the wider public,” he says. “Are we just polarising an argument that doesn’t need to be polarised? All you hear is two fringes of either deregulation or complete, extreme temperance, and that’s really unhealthy, for the producers and retailers as well as the wider public. There clearly is a sensible middle ground for us to pursue that balances the regulatory side with the freedom of choice argument. 

“I want the Portman Group to be at the centre and I want us to be having a sensible conversation about what that looks like. The more we stand on the fringes shouting, the less that gets done. We should be around a table talking about what are the right steps and the right levers to pull, and that’s where the Portman Group can operate. 

“We can remind policymakers of how much can be achieved through partnership. We can point to the work of Drinkaware, we can point to the Local Alcohol Partnerships’ work, we can point to the steps the industry has taken and say: ‘These are all the great things we are doing. Get behind them, support them, celebrate them and if you think there is more to do, don’t stand over there shouting at us, come and talk to us. Tell us what you’d like us to do. 

“‘If we’re not tackling an issue or we’re missing one, come and have a conversation with us and we’ll see what we can do together.’ If we can encourage policymakers to embrace that collaboration and that opportunity of partnership, it might not be as headline-grabbing or as exciting [as scare stories in the national media dished out by the anti-alcohol lobby], but we can actually make some difference to tackling alcohol harms in a substantive way.”

Positive trends

Drinking trends in the UK are currently all positive from a health point of view. Per capita consumption is down, under-age drinking is down, a smaller number of people are drinking at harmful levels, mindful drinking is on the rise, young adults are drinking less than previous generations and “drinking less but better” is the oft-chanted trade mantra. But the temperance movement will not stop until alcohol is a sunset industry.

Timothy suggests there is little point wasting time trying to convert people who demonise the drinks industry without listening to reason, and that the trade should instead focus on presenting a solid case to the bulk of politicians and civil servants who are sensible and open to working in partnership. 

“I would love to be able to say that the vast majority of people who have criticised us in the past are going to have some overnight conversion and see the light,” he says. “I am an optimist, and some people may be persuaded. It’s interesting that when you talk to people, those who are most vitriolic in public can be quite reasonable in private. You have to understand the pressures that are on some people to say things. 

“There will always be a small minority that perhaps aren’t persuadable, but in a sense we need to persuade the bulk of people, the vast majority of opinion formers, and if some people struggle to come on board then that’s a shame. 

“There’s a tendency when you are in a polarised situation to assume that everyone who doesn’t agree with you is out to get you. It can create a bit of paranoia. I come at this from a beautifully naïve world view, which is to assume that actually the vast majority of people who have concerns around alcohol do so from a perfectly legitimate harm perspective and want to do something about harm. 

“There will be some people who are just passionately anti-alcohol and won’t be satisfied until people aren’t drinking, and that’s not the target audience for my work here at the Portman Group. But I still do believe that there are a lot of politicians and civil servants who are pretty sensible about this stuff, and just need to be persuaded of the merits of a partnership-based approach. 

“We need to show them that they can trust us, and they also need to show some trust the other way. As we build that trust, I hope we will have more success at rolling out collaborations.

“[The anti-alcohol lobby] is a very serious [threat] but it’s especially serious if it’s the only narrative that emerges. If you don’t challenge people where they’re wrong, or you don’t put out a prevailing view, then it becomes a problem, it becomes an accepted narrative whether it’s true or not. We want to put out a counter view where it’s right to do so. 

“Our job is to be so good at responsibility and so persuasive at showing that the industry is socially responsible that the space to operate for people who want to damage the industry just doesn’t exist. We need to ensure that sensible, rational people recognise it is indisputable that the industry is committed to social responsibility and that a self-regulatory model is the best way to achieve that.

“We all need to do a better job of telling the story around alcohol, and that means diversifying the conversation away from just health. That’s not to say health isn’t important – it is, and we need a robust position on health issues – but we also need to show that trends are going in the right direction, and we need to talk about the economic and social benefits of alcohol, as well as the public health challenges of over-consumption. 

“We need to think about how we frame that debate. We need to be conscious of the fact that there is a greater appetite now for politicians to intervene on social policy issues than there has ever been when you look at the makeup of parliament. 

“The size of the government’s majority makes that a bigger risk than it has ever been, so we need to be mindful of that as we talk to politicians. But I don’t stay awake at night worrying about these things. We just have to be mindful of them as we operate.”

Rogues’ gallery

Shelves line the back wall of the Portman Group’s boardroom, featuring a rogues’ gallery of all t
he drinks brands that have received complaints over the years. Some, such as Beavertown’s beers, were not upheld, but many were swiftly outlawed by the organisation: 12% abv Crunk Juice, a pint-sized RTD complete with caffeine and ginseng; Sexy lager, featuring half-naked women on the bottle; vodka in a bottle shaped like a Kalashnikov machine gun; another RTD called Shag; and more recent entries such as Collagin, a blend of gin and collagen marketed as an “elixir of youth”.

In recent years the UK drinks industry has benefited from an explosion of exciting craft beers and gins, but some sail close to the wind as they bid to stand out from the competition. “When I look at the fragmentation at the bottom of the market and the development of so many craft producers, that creates a new challenge for us because it’s lots more people we need to think about and make aware of the [Portman Group’s] code [of practice],” says Timothy. 

“As individual brands look to differentiate it becomes more difficult for them to do so and the risk is the innovation that they explore or produce crosses the line into some grey and dangerous areas for the code of practice. We need to work with people such as SIBA and the small producers to make sure they hear the message about what the Portman Group does, the advisory service, and the opportunity that exists for us to help them develop brands in a safe and responsible way. 

“It’s about getting our message out further and wider, and that’s a pretty small price to pay for having a really dynamic and exciting producer industry. I’m afraid having spent 10 years in retail I buy into the ‘customer is king’ mantra. It’s great news for the customers that there’s such a diverse array of producers out there making great, new, innovative products and driving up standards, not to mention the obvious export opportunities for UK producers. 

“If we have to work harder at going out, talking through trade associations, travelling a few more miles to see producers, being a bit more snappy about how we broadcast our existence and the advisory service and the support we can offer people, then we can do that. We have also got a lot of channels through social media and the website that we will be looking to make a bit more appealing and broaden the message. It doesn’t worry me that it’s happening, because it’s a great development for the industry. It’s great for driving up standards, and we’ll just make sure that our code gets out further and wider.

“I don’t want to close down innovation, but the truth is when products breach the code, they can do disproportionate damage to the reputation of the whole industry, and that’s why we have to adhere to the code as strictly as possible. It’s not about stifling innovation – there are lots of ways you can innovate – but you have to be very mindful of what’s in the code.”  

When examining the broader picture, Timothy sees no need for a radical revolution, but hopes that various factions within the industry, often at loggerheads with one another, can unite to present a responsible front to policymakers. 

“Where I get most concerned is producers versus retailers, on-trade versus off-trade, brewers versus distillers, and that’s quite a challenging place for us to be,” he says. “Let’s work together to promote social responsibility. You can see that working in the best possible examples in the likes of Community Alcohol Partnerships, which we have supported, alongside schemes such as Pubwatch and Best Bar None and local partnership initiatives that make a difference on the ground. I’d like to see more of that partnership and more cross-industry collaboration.”

He adds: “People really get that corporate responsibility and social responsibility are at the heart of business nowadays, and modern consumers don’t really accept the notion that you can behave irresponsibly while buying into your products. The ever-greater calls for transparency and accountability are there, so pretty much all business leaders buy into the notion that you have to not just talk the talk, but walk the walk as well. That gives me great encouragement because it makes our lives really easy – people get the need to ensure they are socially responsible. It doesn’t mean people won’t occasionally stray over the line, but most of the breaches of the code now that come in front of the panel seem pretty unintentional.

“There is a small and stubborn group of people who drink to excess and we all need to think about what we can do to tackle that problem. There are still harms associated with alcohol, but when you talk to people who work in this space they are extremely serious. None of our member companies want to be associated with that kind of harm. They want to be associated with doing everything within their powers to reasonably prevent it. It’s about being eternally optimistic, but also realistic about the challenges. I hope that in a year, two years’ or three years’ time we will still be optimistic about the future and talking about the good things, but also showing that we have made progress on the harms that exist.”