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The drinks industry and the vaping industry both have a responsibility to protect children. So what can we learn from one another? Can the vape industry discover a better way to police our own products by looking at how the alcohol industry does it?
In this week’s article, we’ll look at how the UK drinks industry goes beyond minimum legal standards to protect children and vulnerable consumers from harm. We’ll examine how the vaping industry is currently trying to govern itself, and compare this to how the Portman Group — alcohol’s own self-regulating trade group — already works.
What is the Portman Group?
Founded in 1989, the Portman Group is a trade association that exists to promote responsible drinking in the UK. The organisation is completely funded by the drinks industry (not by taxpayers), and it acts as a sort of ethical rulebook, judge and jury for the sector.
More than 150 major distilleries and breweries are signed up to the Portman Group’s voluntary code of conduct (known as ‘The Code’). The Code is a list of common-sense rules that go one step further than the law to protect consumers, children and vulnerable users.
What has this got to do with vaping?
Recent reports from the government suggest that children are getting their hands on e-cigarettes and disposable vapes. Youth vaping is on the rise (source: gov.uk), and as an industry we have to respond to that.
One approach would be to just wait for Westminster to create new vaping laws, or for the authorities to do a better job of enforcing existing laws. The problem with this approach is that change can take years, and may never even happen. You only need to look at some of the vaping bills that never became law (see our recent article) for proof of this.
The vaping and drinks industries have a lot in common. In both industries, laws already exist to stop children from buying the product. In both industries, responsible retailers check ID before selling to anyone who looks underage. And in both industries, there is an ever-present risk of harm — to underage users in particular — which needs to be managed properly.
Many of the businesses signed up to the Portman Group are centuries old, with generations of experience selling a product that is both addictive and unsuitable for children. If we can learn from the experience of the drinks trade, we can potentially make vaping much safer much faster than if we were to go it alone.
What is The Code?
The Code is the Portman Group’s rulebook. It has been around for the best part of three decades. The Code (also known as Code of Practice on the Naming, Packaging and Promotion of Alcoholic Drinks ) sets out how alcoholic drinks should be marketed in the UK. The goal of The Code is to protect children, but also to ensure that alcoholic drinks are promoted in a socially-responsible way.
According to The Code (source: portmangroup.org.uk), a drink’s packaging, marketing and promotion should…
- Clearly explain that the drink is alcoholic
- Not emphasise the alcoholic strength or intoxicating effect
- Avoid association with violence, anti-social or illegal behaviour
- Not associate with, or allude to, illegal drugs
- Not associate with, or suggest, sexual success or sexual activity
- Not suggest that a drink can make you more popular
- Not promote irresponsible drinking, like binge drinking or drink-driving
- Not promote fast ‘down-in-one’ style drinking
- Not appeal to under 18s
- Not show people under 25 drinking alcohol
- Not suggest a drink has therapeutic or body/mind enhancing qualities
- Not cause serious or widespread offence
These 12 simple rules are grounded in common sense, and they’re easy to understand and follow. Most of these rules would work just as well in the vaping industry as they do for the drinks trade, but they don’t just work because they’re written well. What makes The Code different to other industry codes of conduct is how the Portman Group itself is structured.
How the Portman Group works
The Portman Group isn’t just one group of people from the drinks industry. It’s effectively two separate committees: the Portman Group Council, which is made up of industry veterans, and the Independent Complaints Panel, which acts like a sort of Ethics Committee and jury and is completely separate to the Council.
This division keeps the group accountable and unbiased. For example, the Portman Group’s Council members (many of whom hold senior positions in the drinks industry) write and publish The Code’s rules, but the Independent Complaints Panel is responsible for enforcing those rules. Nobody who works for the Portman Group (or any of its member companies) can serve on the Independent Complaints Panel, which keeps the Panel’s decision-making process fair and transparent.
If a member of the public thinks that there has been a breach of The Code, they can make a complaint on the Portman Group website. The Independent Complaints Panel then meets regularly to pass judgement on these complaints, and any rule-breaking products, packages or promotional campaigns are withdrawn. All decisions are published on the Portman Group website, along with explanations of why a particular complaint was upheld or not.
Almost every drinks manufacturer in the UK subscribes to The Code (see the full list of signatories here), and almost everybody complies with its findings. In 2020, an audit revealed that the UK alcohol industry was 95% compliant with The Code:
Does the vaping industry need its own Portman Group?
The vaping industry already has trade associations that set high standards and work to protect consumers. For instance, the UK Vaping Industry Association (UKVIA), campaigns for better regulation in our industry and works incredibly hard to prevent underage sales (learn more about the UKVIA here). There is also the Independent British Vape Trade Association (IBVTA), which has created its own code of conduct for members (you can see these rules at ibvta.org.uk).
What we don’t have, as an industry, is a trade group with a totally separate independent complaints panel (like the Portman Group), delivering a higher standard of protection to consumers than the law affords. A vaping version of the Portman Group could help improve vape product marketing standards, keep children away from vaping and ensure that our industry always acts in a cohesive, socially-responsible manner regardless of what’s going on at Westminster. But it can’t work alone.
As an industry, we can regulate ourselves with a voluntary code of conduct, but we can’t personally force unscrupulous vendors to obey the law of the land. The government should not have to report on a rise in youth vaping. Youth vaping shouldn't exist. Children should not be able to buy vapes — full stop. We need the UK’s existing vape laws to be enforced more vigorously, and we need the makers and sellers of illegal vape kits to be caught and prosecuted.
Stay safe and happy vaping!