Is mandatory alcohol labelling needed?

The Department of Health and Social Care is due to launch a consultation on alcohol labelling in order to reflect alcohol within the obesity strategy. This is likely to review whether calories should be mandated on pack along with the Chief Medical Officer’s (CMO) low risk guidelines and pregnancy warning labels.

We wanted to check just how well the sector was already doing. Our report, Alcohol Labelling: Informing Consumers – 2021 UK Market Review, looked at the top alcohol brands and demonstrates that significant progress has already been made by the industry to improve consumer information on UK alcohol labelling. It raises the genuine question that given the level of delivery, which is near universal for best practice measures, is there really a need for mandatory measures?

The research

Conducted between July and August 2021, we reviewed 400 alcohol products and examined the provision of information to help consumers make informed decisions. The samples were drawn from all major UK retailers and represents the majority of alcohol by volume sold in the UK. In this blog, we discuss some of the key findings.

Industry best practice – Pregnancy messages, unit content information & Drinkaware/responsibility messages

Since 2017, the Portman Group has been advising the industry on adhering to the current industry best practice guidance. It provides recommendations on how to show information including: units; the Chief Medical Officers’ Low Risk Drinking Guidelines; advice on drinking during pregnancy; a responsibility statement; the promotion of Drinkaware advice; calorie content; nutritional information; drink-driving messages; and the communication that alcohol is an age-restricted product. It follows from industry wide commitments made since the successful Public Health Responsibility Deal.

Of the alcohol labels reviewed, we found 99% carry a pregnancy warning logo or message, 94.25% carry unit information and 93% carry a reference to a responsibility message or to the independent alcohol education charity Drinkaware (88%).

It is a significant endorsement of the guidelines by the sector and the Portman Group Advisory Team who provide advice on their inclusion for free to the hundreds of producers who share their marketing with us to ensure compliance with the Portman Group Code and industry best practice guidelines. This near universal delivery ensures that consumers are better informed and able to make their choices.

Low risk drinking guidelines

79% carry the latest UK Chief Medical Officer low risk drinking guidelines. This is a significant increase from a 2019 survey of a similar number of products conducted in 2019, showing that 29% of products carried the guidance [3].

Portman Group members committed in 2019 to ensuring the latest Chief Medical Officer guidelines are provided on updated editions of labels, and the effect is showing through in these results and we understand that there will be more progress to increase this level of adherence still further.

Calorie information

Close to half (47%) carry calorie information on labels. This was reassuring to see given that while the majority of the sector have made commitments to carry this information, this is not due to come through until the end of 2022 at the earliest. We therefore expect this to rise significantly.

Whilst calorie labelling does not currently sit as a minimum requirement under Portman Group best practice guidance, the Portman Group’s free marketing toolkit does provide producers with advice on how to incorporate calorie information.

Next steps

These are hugely positive findings. Our research shows that the industry has already voluntarily taken action on the proposals under consideration by the Government, without recourse to legislation. We believe further progress can be made on a continued voluntary partnership basis, rather than through mandatory measures.

The Portman Group will also now seek to proactively engage with producers to help close the few remaining gaps where they exist. We will also work across the sector to launch updated best practice guidelines, ensuring that UK consumers have access to more health and product information than ever before to help them make an informed choice.

Finally, watch this space as we intend to carry out another review of the market in 2022, to track further progress that has been made in updating labels.

Download the full report here.


[1, 2 & 3] AHA: Drinking in the Dark, August 2020