Reflecting on decades of innovation and partnerships across the industry, we take a look at some of the initiatives and work carried out in the UK to ensure responsible selling of alcohol

Consumer demand for alcohol sold online has surged in recent years. This was partly accelerated by the effects of COVID-19 lockdowns, but the upward trend in online sales remains. A recent survey from CGA by NielsenIQ Hospitality at Home Tracker showed UK sales increasing 15% over 2022 alone. Whilst this aids consumer convenience, it is crucial alcohol is sold responsibly, both in stores and online.

In September this year, the International Alliance for Responsible Drinking (IARD), in partnership with the leading online retailers and delivery platforms, launched new frontline agent training to support anyone delivering alcohol to do so responsibly and in accordance with the law. This builds on IARD’s partnership with the largest digital platforms to raise standards with the creation of Digital Guiding Principles, which ensures safeguards to prevent the underaged from seeing or interacting with alcohol brands online.

This recent initiative is yet another step in the development of the responsible selling of alcohol. In this blog we reflect on the practical solutions currently in the UK to prevent harm to children and vulnerable adults.

Challenge 25

Shops and supermarkets are the port-of-call for buying alcohol, in-store or online, and have a duty to ensure this is done responsibly. The Retail of Alcohol Sales Group (RASG) brings together all the leading retailers in the UK to support them in this, and provide best practice and guidance.

One of RASG’s most significant achievements has been the development of its Challenge 25 initiative, 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 ID (a card bearing the PASS hologram, a photographic driving license or a passport) and managers are trained to support staff and not overrule them.

In 2021, due to growing demand, RASG issued free guidance to support online alcohol retailers and build best practice within their own organisation, helping them remain compliant when selling online, no matter their business model, size or resources. This will be updated later this month, 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.

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 updated our guidance on sampling to respond to online sales. The guidance says that 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.

How alcohol is sold and consumed was affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Portman Group’s self-regulatory system aims to respond to societal and cultural changes swiftly and effectively when they arise. You can read more about this and how the industry played its part during the pandemic in our Supporting Communities report.

Our work in Scotland

The Portman Group is a member of the Scottish Alcohol Industry Partnership, an industry led initiative which supports, devises and delivers projects that contribute towards the promotion of responsible drinking and tackling alcohol-related harm in Scotland. The partnership works with Police Scotland, local authorities, Best Bar None, Community Alcohol Partnerships and Drinkaware.

In Summer 2022, a Scotland wide proxy purchase campaign ‘It’ll cost you’ was launched. This award-winning campaign reduces the risk of harm and vulnerability to under-18s through the reduction of the proxy-purchasing of alcohol. It’s an offence in Scotland for an adult to buy or attempt to buy alcohol for someone who is under the age of 18, for example if a child gives money to an adult to buy alcohol for them. This is known as proxy purchase. The campaign aims to raise awareness this is a criminal offence which carries a fine of up to £5000 or up to 3 months in prison, or both. This programme followed the successful pilot campaign, ‘You’re Asking for It’, rolled out in 2017, which recorded a 50% reduction in incidents involving youth and alcohol in Glasgow North-West compared to the same period in 2017.

The future

The industry isn’t resting on its laurels. Looking to the future we can anticipate the enhanced use of technology in ensuring that alcohol isn’t sold to under 18s. We sit on the industry Expert Panel on Age Restrictions which works in co-operation with the UK Government on how new age verification technology for alcohol sales can work in practice. This was put into action over the last year through ‘regulatory sandbox’ trials from the Home Office, which sought proposals to test how age verification technology in shops, bars and restaurants can strengthen current measures in place to prevent those under 18 from buying alcohol.

All trials ended on 30 June this year, with the results reviewed by an independent panel, who are assessing the impact this new technology could have on regulation and alcohol licensing.

We look forward to the next steps and to keep working to ensure that the industry ensures that alcohol isn’t sold to under 18s.


Our thanks to:

Community Alcohol Partnerships

International Alliance for Responsible Drinking

Retail Alcohol Standards Group

Scottish Alcohol Industry Partnership