Post COVID-19 = driest January on record? New research shows Brits embrace low and no like never before

The impact of the pandemic, lockdowns and the tier system on Brits’ drinking habits was well documented throughout 2020. Despite widespread concerns surrounding alcohol consumption, many have taken the pandemic as an opportunity to cut down on their drinking, with people of all ages turning to low and no alcohol alternatives.

The Portman Group, the social responsibility and regulatory body for alcohol in the UK, commissioned YouGov to conduct its annual polling on the rising trend of low and no alcohol and why it might just be the necessary tonic to helps Brits to continue drinking  responsibly.

The research showed that almost two-thirds of UK adults (62.5%) have tried low and no products, including over two-thirds of current UK drinkers (68%). Furthermore, a quarter (25%) of UK drinkers consider themselves to be semi-regular consumers of low and no alcohol [5], with the highest consumption taking place in Scotland (27%).

Key reasons for choosing low and no alternatives include being able to drive home and not drinking excessively at social events. Additionally, among those who say they are more likely to drink low and no products since the emergence of COVID-19, almost half (43%) say they are trying to live healthier and 41% say they are trying to moderate their alcohol consumption at home. This reinforces existing responsible drinking and moderation trends.  17.5% who are already drinking low and no said they would be further encouraged to select alternatives if they were more widely available in supermarkets and hospitality venues.

Despite dramatic media headlines pointing to rising supermarket sales of alcohol during 2020, total alcohol volumes sold actually fell by more than a third during the first lockdown [6]. Conversely, low and no sales continue to soar and the sector has witnessed a phenomenal 30% year-on-year growth from 2019 to 2020 [7], highlighting changing drinking habits in the UK and the sector’s ability to respond to this.

Portman Group research in August showed that a quarter (26%) of UK drinkers had cut their alcohol consumption compared to before the first COVID-19 lockdown, whilst a further 7% had stopped drinking altogether. Some drinkers only turn to alcohol in social situations outside of the home, at a venue, surrounded by family, friends and colleagues. It makes sense that, with the imposition of lockdown restrictions, these kinds of drinkers would slow or pause their alcohol intake. It is also valid to say that these people meet the profile of consumers who have turned to low and no alcohol over recent months.

CEO of the Portman Group, John Timothy, commented:

“Lockdowns and the tier system have given Brits pause to consider their alcohol consumption, with many drinking less than ever before. Low and no alcohol alternatives offer the perfect balance of replicating the atmosphere created by alcohol without any of the associated risks.

“4 in 5 UK adults, the moderate majority, continue to drink within the CMO’s lower risk weekly guidelines. We welcome the rise of low and no alcohol that helps people to moderate their alcohol intake while still enjoying time with family and friends.

A number of Portman Group members have been quick to react to growing demand for low and no alternatives. Heineken has launched a range of zero alcohol beer; interim managing director, Simon Amor, commented:

“In recent years we have seen a steady rise in the interest surrounding low and no alcohol alternatives within beer and cider, and demand from consumers has grown considerably. As part of our approach to responsible drinking and promoting moderation, it is important for us to be able to offer people a high-quality no or low alcohol option amongst the brands they enjoy.”

Emma Heal, Managing Director at Lucky Saint, a British alcohol-free brand, said:

“We are excited to see how the step-change in product quality on offer is driving such huge interest in the low and no category, Lucky Saint has seen explosive sales growth of 300% year on year [8]. We see Dry January 2021 as a great opportunity for people to try new low and no drinks to help them moderate their drinking and start the year in a positive way.”

  1. The Portman Group was formed in 1989. It is the alcohol industry regulator and social responsibility body. It has over 130 Code signatories from producers, retailers and membership bodies.
  2. The Portman Group is funded by thirteen member companies: Asahi UK Ltd; Aston Manor Cider; Bacardi; Brown-Forman; Budweiser Brewing Group UK&I; Carlsberg UK; Campari Group; Diageo GB; Heineken UK; Mast-JäegermeisterUK; Pernod Ricard UK, SHS Drinks and Thatchers’.
  3. YouGov surveyed 2,100 UK adults on 14 December 2020. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all UK adults (aged 18+). All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc.
  4. ‘Semi-regular’ encompasses the 8% of UK drinkers who drink low and no ‘often’ and further 17% who drink low and no ‘sometimes’.
  5. Nielsen Scantrack and the CGA suggest that the total volume of alcohol sold during lockdown (the 17 weeks to 11 July 2020) fell by over a third to 1.3bn litres, compared to 2bn sold during the same period in 2019.
  6. Nielsen Scantrack data suggests that low and no alcohol sales rose by 30% year-on-year.
  7. Lucky Saint data.
  8. YouGov conducted a survey in August 2020 on behalf of the Portman Group, looking at lockdown drinking. The statistic that 7% of drinkers had stopped drinking, is from that survey.


Portman Group Announces New Chief Executive

The Portman Group, the social responsibility and regulatory body for alcohol in the UK, is pleased to announce the appointment of its new Chief Executive, Matt Lambert who will take up his post from January 2021. Matt has extensive experience in management and corporate affairs and is currently the CEO of the Federation for Industry Sector, Skills and Standards. He has previously held senior roles at a number of large corporations including Microsoft and Betfair.

This year has seen the Portman Group make a series of senior appointments with Philip Rycroft announced as the new Chair over the summer and Nicola Williams taking over as Chair of the Independent Complaints Panel.

Philip, who led the search for the new Chief Executive, commented:

“I am delighted to announce the appointment of Matt Lambert as the new Chief Executive of the Portman Group. Matt is a fantastic hire who brings a wide range of experience and a great track record to the role.

“Matt joins the Portman Group at a critical time, not least as the industry faces up to the challenges arising from the impact of COVID-19. I look forward to working with him to shape the future of the Portman Group, to expand our membership and to work with the alcohol industry to deliver its social responsibilities.

Matt’s appointment concludes a comprehensive search carried out following the resignation of current Portman Group Chief Executive John Timothy. John informed the Council of his intention to step down earlier this year, while committing to remain in post to oversee a smooth and managed transition.

Outgoing CEO John Timothy has overseen the consultation and publication of the sixth edition of the Code of Practice on the Naming, Packaging and Promotion of Alcoholic Drinks, which was independently audited to show 95% compliance from the industry. He also secured agreement from members to include updated CMO guidance on labels and delivered an increase in membership with Asahi UK, Aston Manor, Campari, SHS Drinks and Thatcher’s cider all joining in 2020.

Philip added: “With Matt joining, we are saying goodbye to John who has been invaluable to the Group. He was brought in to refocus and enhance the organisation and has done so successfully; he should be immensely proud of the achievements made during his tenure and on behalf of all members, I’d like to thank him for all that he has done.”

Portman Group members were closely involved in the CEO selection process. Gordon Johncox, Chief Executive at Aston Manor Brewery, commented:

“Matt was the unanimous choice to lead the Portman Group into the future and we look forward to working with him to maintain the UK’s respected high standards of self-regulation of the alcohol industry.”

Finally, speaking about his appointment, Matt Lambert said:

I am delighted to be joining the Portman Group at this critical time for the alcohol industry and sharing my vision and ambition for the organisation with the members and the team.

“The Group’s value to the alcohol sector is clear; it has a long and honourable history of effective regulation which has ensured the industry has always remained socially responsible, even in the face of major challenges. I look forward to being a part of shaping the sector and, more immediately, to celebrating 25 years of the Code, a key element in the Portman Group’s work.”

Campari UK Is the Portman Group’s newest member

The Portman Group, the social responsibility and self-regulatory body for the alcohol industry in the UK, is delighted to welcome Campari UK as its newest member. They are the fifth member to join this year, bringing total membership to thirteen.

The Campari Group traces its roots back to 1860 and the invention by Gaspare Campari of the famous red aperitif and now has a portfolio of over 50 major brands in the premium and super premium sectors including Aperol, Glen Grant Scotch and Appleton Estate Rum. With its operational headquarters in Italy, the Group has 21 in market companies, 22 manufacturing plants and distributes to over 190 nations around the world. Campari UK’s membership bolsters the Portman Group’s representation of spirit brands.

Brad Madigan Managing Director at Campari UK commented: “We are committed to the responsible distribution, marketing and sale of alcoholic beverages and to promoting responsible serving and consumption of our products, in all settings.”

“Joining the Portman Group is an affirmation of our commitment to responsible practices and an opportunity to add our voice to the debate. We support the Portman Group as an internationally recognised gold standard self-regulatory model and indeed have been applying its standards in our activities.”

Chief Executive of the Portman Group John Timothy said: “We are pleased to have Campari UK join the Portman Group as yet another new member this year. Their support will allow us to keep working hard in our aims of showing the alcohol industry to be effectively self-regulated and socially responsible.

“Now more than ever, we need support from the industry’s most reputable companies to help us shape the conversation surrounding alcohol. We encourage producers and retailers, both large and small, to talk to us about how they can play their part in engaging with the key policy challenges and aid us in telling the story of this socially responsible sector.”

A new era for the Portman Group’s Independent Complaints Panel

The Portman Group has appointed a new Chair for the Independent Complaints Panel (ICP). The social responsibility and regulatory body for alcohol in the UK has selected Nicola Williams, an experienced barrister, judge and ombudsman to head up its Panel. As with all ICP chairs, Nicola has a typically impressive career history.

Nicola’s varied experience begins with the law; she was a barrister in private practice for several years before becoming a PCA Board member, a Commissioner at the IPCC (now IOPC), a part-time Crown Court judge and, more recently, working as an Ombudsman, a role she has fulfilled in both the UK and Cayman Islands.

Nicola’s appointment follows the end of the former Chair’s, Jenny Watson CBE, successful tenure. Jenny sat in the role for seven years and chaired more than 80 decisions. Jenny oversaw complaints under the fifth, and current sixth, edition of the Code of Practice on the Naming, Packaging and Promotion of Alcoholic Drinks and chaired the first complaint under the Code of Practice on Alcohol Sponsorship. Jenny’s time as Chair coincided with a period of growth and innovation in the alcohol industry which meant she was able to preside over important decisions regarding nostalgia marketing, the relationship between containers and consumption and products making undue health claims. The outcomes of these decisions resulted in the rebranding of numerous products and, on some occasions, the removal of a product from the market via a Retailer Alert Bulletin. Jenny’s reflections on her time can be read on her goodbye blog here.

Nicola is well-equipped to chair the ICP, which makes decisions based on complaints regarding alcohol products from members of the public and industry. She has previous experience as a sitting member of boards, including the Association of Chief Executives, and has extensive experience of being a key decision-maker, not only in her role as a judge but also in her current role as the Service Complaints Ombudsman for the Armed Forces – the first ever Ombudsman in UK Defence.

Speaking about her new role, Nicola Williams said: “I am excited to begin my role as the Independent Complaints Panel Chair. The Chair presides over many important decisions. The recent independent audit showed that the alcohol industry is 95% compliant, meaning the Panel has a crucial role in keeping this high level of adherence to the Portman Group’s Code.

“I am eager to begin working with the Panel to ensure the alcohol industry remains a socially responsible one within the context of a strong self-regulatory model.”

John Timothy, Chief Executive of the Portman Group commented: “We are delighted to welcome Nicola as the new Chair of the Independent Complaints Panel. She brings with her a wealth of knowledge and experience that will be crucial in working with the Panel.

“This year has been one full of achievement for the Portman Group, with the publication of the independent audit which showed 95% compliance to the sixth edition of the Code. However, it has also been a year full of challenges to the alcohol industry. Having Nicola as the new ICP Chair, as well as Philip Rycroft who was recently announced as our new Group Chair, will be invaluable in progressing our work.”

Complaint against Heineken’s Orchard Thieves cider not upheld

A recent complaint about Heineken’s Orchard Thieves cider was not upheld by the Independent Complaints Panel (ICP). A copy of the full decision is available here.

The ICP reviewed the product on the grounds that it had appeal to under-18s (rule 3.2(h)), due to the packaging’s depiction of a silhouetted fox, and on the basis that the inclusion of the word ‘thieves’ in the product name suggested the encouragement of illegal behaviour (rule 3.2 (b)).

When considering whether the product had particular appeal to under 18s, the Panel concluded that the imagery used on the can was mature in nature as the fox was not deemed to be cartoon-like and the colours used throughout the can’s design were muted.

The ICP also considered the product under Rule 3.2(b) and concluded that given the absence of any human characteristics on the fox, and the fictional brand narrative, there was no link to, or encouragement of, illegal behaviour.

Commenting on the decision the Chair of the Independent Complaints Panel, Jenny Watson CBE, said:

“After careful consideration, the ICP concluded that Orchard Thieves did not contravene any of the Code’s rules. The packaging, due to its muted colours, did not appeal to children and the only connection to theft was in relation to a fox taking apples from an orchard, rather than anything that could be construed as illegal behaviour.

Regarding the decision, a spokesperson for Heineken commented: “We take the responsible promotion of our products very seriously and welcome the robust review and scrutiny by the Independent Complaints Panel.  We’re pleased that the Panel agrees our packaging and promotion of Orchard Thieves Cider falls within the strict Code.”

The Portman Group’s search for a new Chair has come to an end, with the social responsibility and regulatory body for alcohol in the UK appointing former senior civil servant Philip Rycroft.

Philip was most recently the Permeant Secretary to the Department for Exiting the EU. He brings to the role a rare mix of both business and government experience, having undertaken senior positions in both the public and private sectors.

Philip began his civil service career at the Scottish Office in 1989, followed by a secondment to the Cabinet Office for Sir Leon Brittan in the European Commission. He later served as the Director-General for Business and Innovation at the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, before becoming Director-General for Innovation and Enterprise and Chief Executive of the Better Regulation Executive. He was the Director-General to the Deputy Prime Minister’s Office serving Rt Hon Nick Clegg MP from 2012 up to the May 2015 election.

His private sector experience includes time as the Director for Corporate Affairs at Hong Kong-based Hutchison Whampoa, a former Fortune 500 investment holding company. In addition to this, he has valuable experience in the alcohol sector, having worked as an adviser to Scottish & Newcastle plc (since acquired by Heineken).

2020 has been a time of exceptional growth for the Portman Group as five additional members have joined – Asahi, Aston Manor, Campari, SHS Drinks and Thatchers. Rycroft is eager to look to the group’s future and believes bringing more producers and retailers, large and small, into the fold is crucial. Currently, the Portman Group has more than 130 organisations including producers, pub companies, retailers and member bodies signed up as Code Signatories, committed to upholding the Code of Practice.

Speaking about his new role, Philip Rycroft said: “It is with great pleasure that I join the Portman Group, the first industry regulator committed to supporting moderation and responsible drinking. Like so many industries, drinks producers and retailers are facing into an incredibly tough external environment and I’m keen to play my part, steering the Portman Group to showcase their best practice and commitment to social responsibility.”

“For the good of the self-regulatory model I hope to maintain and then accelerate the exceptional membership growth of 2020. We have a huge cross section of support for the Portman Group model shown in the range of bodies who are signatories to the Code. If more joined us as members, the future of the industry could be built using their perspectives. They would also benefit from the chance to work with their peers, accessing unrivalled policy and communications analysis as well as fast-tracked regulatory advice and training services.”

John Timothy, Chief Executive of the Portman Group says:

“Securing someone of Philip’s stature as our new Chair is a real coup for the Portman Group. We are privileged to have his insight, knowledge and expertise. He understands the mechanics of the Scottish and UK Governments as well as the motivations of socially conscious businesses. We are eager for him to begin shaping the next stage of the Portman Group’s journey as we work with Government to secure the right result on the obesity strategy, navigate the impact of COVID-19 on the industry, and enhance opportunities for across society for greater take-up of exciting new low and no products.”

Philip Rycroft replaces former Chair Sir Martin Narey who stepped down in November 2019.

Complaint against Hammerton Brewery’s Buoyancy Aid not upheld

A recent complaint about Hammerton Brewery’s collaboration with Brew by Numbers, Buoyancy Aid was not upheld by the Independent Complaints Panel. A copy of the full decision is available here.

The complainant, a member of the public, complained about the product on the grounds that, they felt, it had appeal to under-18s, due to the use of cartoon imagery and that the product’s name and use of ocean-related imagery may create a false link between alcohol consumption and enhanced ability to swim.

Members of the public are free to submit complaints regarding the naming, packaging and promotion of any alcoholic drinks to the Portman Group, these complaints will then be reviewed by the Independent Complaints Panel (ICP) under the Code of Practice on the Naming, Packaging and Promotion of Alcoholic Drinks.

The Panel chose to consider whether the product the alcoholic nature was communicated with clarity (Rule 3.1) as the busy packaging and descriptor ‘Soursop and Guava Gose 4.2%’ raised concerns. However, they concluded that the line ‘brewed to our resolution’ on the front of the can and the back of can information meant the alcoholic nature was clear.

The Panel then reviewed the product under Rule 3.2(b), suggestion of association with bravado, violence or illegal behaviour, and concluded that the packaging suggested no connection with drinking and enhanced ability, or encouragement to, swim. Similarly, when looking at Rule 3.2(j), suggestion of therapeutic qualities or enhancement of mental or physical capabilities, the panel deduced that the overall impression of the product would not change a consumer’s mood or behaviour.

Finally, the product was looked at in conjunction with Rule 3.2(h), appeal to under 18s, and noted that the cartoon imagery was not childlike and this, coupled with the can’s 440ml size, which is often associated with alcohol, meant the product was not in breach of this rule.

Commenting on the decision the Chair of the Independent Complaints Panel, Jenny Watson CBE, said:

“After considering both the complainant’s perspective, as well as the company’s subsequent submission, the Panel decided that Buoyancy Aid was not in breach of the Code. While the Panel felt there were a number of elements to take into consideration, when looking at the product as a whole the Panel determined it was not in breach of the Code.”


Complaint against Aston Manor’s Frosty Jack’s Cider not upheld

A recent complaint about Aston Manor’s Frosty Jack’s Cider was not upheld by the Independent Complaints Panel. A copy of the full decision is available here.

The complainant, a member of the public, complained about the product on the grounds that, they felt, it had appeal to under-18s, due to apple imagery and a link to popular children’s character, Jack Frost, depicted images of people who are, or appear, under 25 years old on its packaging and, due to the bottle’s 2.5L size, encouraged immoderate consumption.

Members of the public are free to submit complaints regarding the naming, packaging and promotion of any alcoholic drinks to the Portman Group, these complaints will then be reviewed by the Independent Complaints Panel (ICP) under the Code of Practice on the Naming, Packaging and Promotion of Alcoholic Drinks.

The Panel considered whether the product encouraged immoderate consumption, per Rule 3.2(f), and concluded that the labelling on the bottle was clear about its alcohol content  and considered Portman Group guidance which highlights that the majority of consumers understand bottles of over 2 litres are designed to be shared or consumed over more than one sitting.

The ICP considered the product under Rule 3.2(h), appeal to under 18s, and determined that association with apples on cider products is reasonable. They also noted that there was no depiction of a Jack Frost character and the product’s plain and muted colour palette did not have the high-contrast and bright colours usually associated with appeal to children.

Finally, the considered the product under 3.2(j), depiction of people who appear under-25 on a drink, packaging or any promotional material, and noted that product did not show images of people under the age of 25, therefore the product did not breach this rule.

Commenting on the decision the Chair of the Independent Complaints Panel, Jenny Watson CBE, said:

“After considering both the complainant’s perspective, as well as the company’s subsequent submission, the Panel determined that Frosty Jack’s Cider was not in breach of the Code. We acknowledge the complainant’s concern but after careful consideration, we concluded that when contextualised appropriately the product did not breach the Code.

Regarding the decision Simon Russell, Communication and Engagement Manager at Aston Manor= Cider, commented:

It is right that there is a robust and independent process to consider complaints as part of the wider work to ensure that all involved in the drinks industry adhere to appropriate standards. It is something we are committed to support in our marketing and communication and in all areas of our operations.

“In this instance we did not feel that the claims made were merited and we are grateful that the independent panel considered the detailed evidence we provided. The very small ‘white cider’ category receives undue attention that is not informed by data or appropriate context and opinions can be skewed as a consequence.

“Ensuring producers and retailers uphold appropriate standards and developing effective and proportionate approaches to tackle the misuse of a minority are parallel and important issues for us. Both ambitions are only served if the public debate is balanced, based on evidence and recognises the relevant context. We will continue to play our part to deliver precisely this.”

In response to the Royal College of Psychiatrists report into COVID-19 alcohol behaviours, John Timothy, CEO of the Portman Group, the social responsibility and regulatory body for alcohol in the UK, commented:

“Figures from Public Health England show alcohol intake rose for a minority during the lockdown but, crucially it has since fallen back. This is echoed by our own studies. 

“Of course, not all increases are a cause for a concern – many people still drink within Government low risk guidelines. Nevertheless it is important not to disregard the small minority who may now be drinking to harmful levels. We support targeted measures aimed at giving these people the help they need.”

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Commenting on the publication of the AHA Commission on Alcohol Harm report, Portman Group Chief Executive John Timothy said:

“There is little evidence to support the need for the radical measures the AHA would like to see. The UK is on an evolving journey in its relationship with alcohol and has made major strides over the past 20 years. Almost 4 in 5 UK adults either choose not to drink or stay within the CMOs’ low risk guidelines. Underage drinking is also on a consistent downward trend and almost all measures of alcohol-related harm are in decline.

“The small minority of people that persistently misuse alcohol need targeted support to break the damaging cycle of dependency. That is a difficult but important task that has the industry’s full support. But it cannot be used to justify a tranche of new measures that would disproportionately penalise ordinary men and women who enjoy a drink and do so responsibly.”

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