For over a decade there have been considerable falls in levels of underage drinking across the UK. Since 2002, weekly underage drinking in Wales¹ has declined by 80%, whilst in England² there has been a 64% fall between 2004 and 2021*. In Scotland³, the decline has been 58% since 2004 and in Northern Ireland⁴ we’ve seen a 50% fall in those who have ever tried alcohol since 2000.

While the alcohol sector would certainly never seek to claim sole credit for these falls in underage drinking, it is also the case that there have been numerous industry-funded and led initiatives that have helped to drive these downward trends. Reflecting on decades of innovation, regulation and partnerships across the industry, we take a look at some of these initiatives and the work carried across the UK to help tackle underage drinking.

Challenge 25

Whether in store or online, retailers are committed to promoting the responsible retail of alcohol and to ensure that they do not sell alcohol to under-18s. The Retail of Alcohol Standards Group (RASG) is a panel of the leading retailers in the UK who offer practical advice and develop guidance and best practice to aid, encourage and facilitate retailers to sell alcohol is a responsible way.

RASG’s most significant achievement has been the development and nationwide roll out of the Challenge 25 initiative which you will probably have seen in stores. It is a retailing strategy that encourages anyone who is over 18, but looks under 25 to carry acceptable ID if they wish to buy alcohol. Challenge 25 is more than a proof of age scheme; it demonstrates important cultural changes in organisations that adopt it. Staff are trained to ask anyone who looks under 25 to present an acceptable form of ID (a card bearing the PASS hologram, a photographic driving license or a passport) and managers are trained to support staff and not to overrule them. There is huge rigor in challenging people up to 25, rather than simply over 18, and this has entirely changed the sales environment.

In 2021, due to growing demand, RASG issued free guidance to support online alcohol retailers and build best practice within their own organisation. This has helped them to remain compliant when selling online, no matter their business model, size or resources. This was updated in 2022, with the new guidance available here.

Community Alcohol Partnerships

A hugely effective grassroots initiative has been Community Alcohol Partnerships (CAPs). They bring together and support local partnerships of councils, police, retailers, schools, health providers and community groups across the UK to reduce alcohol harm among young people, improve their health and wellbeing, and enhance their communities. To date, over 250 CAPs have launched across the UK, with many more planned and being developed.

For CAPs that collected comparable baseline and post intervention data the following changes were found:

You can learn more about CAPs in our blog here.

Scottish Alcohol Industry Partnership

The Scottish Alcohol Industry Partnership (SAIP) is a vehicle for industry partners to work together to support, devise and deliver initiatives that contribute towards the promotion of responsible drinking and tackle alcohol-related harm in Scotland.

In Summer 2022, SAIP, together with Police Scotland and local authorities, launched a nationwide proxy purchase campaign in Scotland under the strapline of ‘It’ll cost you’. General feedback from Police Scotland and Police Scotland Youth Volunteers was that the campaign was well received by retailers and the public. It underpinned the partnership working between the retail trade and police. The campaign was relaunched in June 2023 and will run until August 2023.

Regulation – Advertising Standards Authority

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) is the UK’s independent advertising regulator. It has administered the UK Code of Non-Broadcast Advertising and Direct & Promotional Marketing (written and maintained by the Committee of Advertising Practice) for over 60 years and the UK Code of Broadcast Advertising (written and maintained by the Broadcast Committee of Advertising Practice) for 18 years.

These Codes include rules to protect people who are vulnerable, including children (which the Codes define as those aged 15 and under) and young people (those aged 16 and 17). They include rules on the scheduling and placement of adverts to ensure that under-18’s exposure to alcohol advertisements is appropriately limited. The rules prohibit these ads from appearing in children’s and young people’s media and, where they appear in media targeting a predominantly adult audience, the content is restricted to ensure that they cannot appeal particularly to those under the age of 18.

Since 2019, the ASA has reported annually on children’s exposure to age-restricted TV ads, including alcohol products, at the UK level. In its most recent analysis, it found that between 2010 and 2021, children’s exposure to alcohol advertising on TV decreased by three quarters, from an average of 3.2 ads per week in 2010 to 0.8 ads per week in 2021. The average number of alcohol ads children saw in 2021 (0.8 per week) reached the lowest level in the 12-year period covered (ASA, May 2022).

Regulation – Portman Group

For over 25 years, our Code of Practice for the Naming, Packaging and Promotion of Alcoholic Drinks has sought to ensure that alcohol is promoted in a socially responsible way, only to those aged 18 and over, and in a way that does not appeal particularly to those who are vulnerable. It is backed by over 160 Code Signatories, which includes all the leading retailers in the UK.

Thanks to the Code, over 170 products have been amended or removed from the market. Many hundreds more have been helped to adhere to the Code before appearing on shelves through the support of the Advisory Service.

In addition to the Code rules, we provide guidance on their application. We also look at market trends and provide guidance on how to responsibly present alcohol products, marketing, and promotions.

In March 2019, we published a blog on sampling to respond to online sales. Promoters should only offer samples to people who are over the age of 18, and if in doubt ask for proof of age (driving licence, passport, or PASS-accredited proof of age card). If proof of age cannot be supplied, and companies have any doubts as to whether the person is over 18, then they should politely refuse to offer them a sample.

The Future

Looking to the future there is always more work to be done. 71% of regular drinkers aged 11-15 obtain alcohol from their parents in England⁵ so there is important work to be done to educate parents to understand the Chief Medical Officer’s advice that an alcohol-free childhood is the healthiest and best option. This is the next challenge and should help to further drive down the number of under-18s drinking.

Foot notes

¹ Health Behaviour in School-aged Children and 2018 survey, May 2019

² NHS Digital, September 2022

³ Scottish Government, November 2019

NI Young Persons Behaviour & Attitudes Survey, September 2020

Community Alcohol Partnerships, 2023

*remained at 6% since 2016 under new methodology