Portman Group

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Alcohol badge.jpg This article is part of the Spinwatch public health oriented Alcohol Portal project.

The Portman Group (TPG) is an organisation financed and founded by the alcohol industry that claims to promote social responsibility within the industry, primarily focusing on responsible marketing, labelling and speaking for its members.

TPG acts to “show leadership on best practice in the area of alcohol responsibility" and to "foster a balanced understanding of alcohol-related issues."[1][2]

Professor Nick Heather, former Director of the Newcastle Centre for Alcohol and Drug Studies is one of many alcohol experts who see its role differently: "The attempt to distance alcohol as a drug from other kinds of drug and to give it a good face is the main activity of groups like the Portman Group." [3] There is little doubt that the group has been beneficial to the alcohol industry. Reflecting on the role played by the Portman Group in the development of the English public health white paper in 2004 an alcohol industry executive told The Grocer magazine, "The Portman Group was set up as our insurance policy. Getting all the different competitors to work together has not been plain sailing but the creation of the group has definitely benefited us all. There was nothing in the White Paper that was a surprise we are already ahead of the game in most areas" [4]. The same article reported on the desire for some within the food industry to develop a PMG for food. Hugh Burkitt, CEO of the Marketing Society, a former member of the Portman Group's independent complaints panel, sees the development of such a group as essential to the food industry. He argues that the self regulatory and promotional roles undertaken by TPG for the “piffling sum of £2million a year” would benefit food corporations. [5] Coincidentally, The Grocer reported that as Burkitt was giving his presentation in London, Jean Coussins, [then] chief executive of the Portman Group, was telling a conference in Beaconsfield organised by European sugar industry body CEFS why the organisation had been so successful. She pointed out that the Portman Group was a truly independent body, with a clearly defined role. And it had benefited the alcohol industry in a number of ways such as: the fostering of political trust and co-operation; the avoidance of statutory controls; and the generation of positive media coverage. All of which has been achieved because the Portman Group is definitely not a trade association that lobbies on behalf of its members. [6]


The following extract gives some insight into the context in which the Portman Group was established.

"In 1989, a new public relations alliance was formed by the UK's leading alcohol companies. Instrumental in setting the ball rolling was (Lord) John Wakeham, a Tory peer and then chairman of the Ministerial Group on Alcohol Issues. According to Anthony Hurse, civil servant at the Department of Health: "Lord Wakeham made it clear to the alcohol industry that he would like the industry's collaboration. He spoke to Peter Mitchell Director of Strategic Affairs at Guinness who agreed he'd do what he could. As a consequence of Wakeham's suggestions, the UK's seven leading alcohol companies including Whitbread, Bass and Seagram, launched a new PR organisation from the headquarters of Guinness plc in London's Portman Square" [7].

Portman Group's Role

The Portman Group claim that their purpose is to promote responsible drinking; help prevent misuse of alcohol; encourage responsible marketing; and to foster a balanced understanding of alcohol-related issues [8]. Its former chief executive, Jean Coussins, rejected any suggestion that the group “represent[s] the industry” or acts as a “trade association or lobby group.” [9] However, the evidence of its involvement in research and policy consultations indicates that it is not independent of the industry and that it lobbies on behalf of the industry. In its statements the group emphasises individual responsibility, blaming a minority of heavy drinkers for alcohol related problems. This ignores many aspects of alcohol related harm and is inconsistent with the evidence base that supports current public health thinking. [10] [11]. The group recently flexed its muscle in the debate around the Scottish government’s plans to introduce a minimum price per unit of alcohol—a policy that is supported by public health professionals worldwide but that has been criticised by the group. [12] [13][14]

The group also attacked recent work from Sheffield University that found that minimum pricing in England and Wales would reduce the number of deaths directly attributable to alcohol by 3400 and the number of unnecessary hospital admissions by 100,000 a year. [15] [16]. The chief medical officer for England, Liam Donaldson, supported the Sheffield University findings and minimum pricing in his annual report on public health. [17] The group claims that alcohol advertising has no effect on the level of sales and therefore is not a driver of consumption but only of brand choice. It subsequently criticised Sir Liam, the BMA, and Alcohol Concern for their evidence based calls for such a ban.[18]. [19]

The Portman Group regularly comment on scientific or public health research, they challenge findings that do not fit with the alcohol industry’s perspective on drinking alcohol and related issues. In August 2011 Local Alcohol Profiles for England (LAPE) were updated, these profiles estimate levels and patterns of alcohol consumption and subsequent levels of harm on some measures across England. The figures for the five year period up to 2009/2010 show a 24.6% increase in alcohol related hospital admissions. [20] They also highlight differences in consumption levels across regions, finding that despite a rising number of abstainers, alcohol continues to be a high risk factor in hospital admission, poor health and crime. The Portman Group claim that the figures are misleading in a letter sent to all newspapers who reported on the findings. In this case The Telegraph, The Daily Mail and The Daily Express recieved letters of complaint. [21]. The Portman group do not accept that alcohol realted hospital admissions harve increased by almost 25% and point out that hospital admissions across the board are rising beacuase of increasing population size and life expectancy. The argue instead that alcohol related hospital admissions have increased by only 0.02% but do not disclose where the figures they use come from. [22]

Independent Complaints Panel

Complaints raised against the industry's self regulatory code mediated by the Portman Group are heard by an independent complaints panel. In 2009 a member of the public complained about a promotion run by brewer Greene King ran a buy 3 pints get one free promotion, the panel ruled in favour of the brewer. David Poley, Portman Group Chief Executive, said “The Panel decided that nothing in the promotional material encouraged consumers to drink four pints in one session". [23] In another case Tokyo beer manufactured by BrewDog, a small eco-brewery in Fraserburgh, Scotland was banned under the code for this wording on the label “Everything in moderation, including moderation itself. What logically follows is that you must, from time, [sic] have excess. This beer is for those times". [24] Alcohol Focus Scotland and a member of the public complained about the 18% ABV beer. When Portman say they "ban" products what they mean is that they circulate an alert to their members and other retailers to encourage them to enforce a voluntary ban on the product in question.

Independent Complaints Panel Members

Former Members

Policy Positions

The Portman Group believe that alcohol harm reduction should focus on education and prevention rather than on controls advocated by public health advocates in tackling alcohol misuse. "Alcohol harm reduction measures should target the minority who misuse alcohol rather than the responsible drinking majority" [25]. The evidence that underpins the public health approach is that controlling availability and increasing pricing are the most effective measures to reduce alcohol related harm [26]. Calls for such measures have been heard from Alcohol Concern and the chief medical officer for England and Wales Sir Liam Donaldson [27] Introducing minimum pricing is strongly opposed by the alcohol industry and, in turn the Portman Group [28]. Unsurprisingly, the Portman Group also share the alcohol industry's position on advertising. Further restrictions on alcohol advertising are advocated by public health professions, Alcohol Concern [29] and the British Medical Association [30] have called for a total ban, and have subsequently been criticised by The Portman Group for these evidence-based calls for a total advertising ban on alcohol. Furthermore, TPG has used a recent report from academics at Sheffield University to defend its member companies’ right to 24-hour television advertising, on the basis that a ban on advertising could lead to fierce price competition – which the Sheffield report says could lead to increased consumption. TPG doesn’t accept the link between price and consumption but still uses it as a defence of current advertising practice [31].

Working in Partnership with Government

The Government's Alcohol Harm Reduction Strategy (England) was launched in March 2004 (and subsequently reaffirmed in the Choosing Health White Paper) one of the aims was to develop a fund with broad based support, financed voluntarily by industry to tackle alcohol misuse and alcohol-related harm. "It was envisaged that the fund would be used to finance community and national activities across the UK and would be administered by an independent board, wholly independent of Government" [32] The alcohol industry opposed government plans to create an independent national fund for projects aimed at combating alcohol problems. Eventually, it agreed to reform an existing industry fund - the Drinkaware Trust- giving it greater independence from the industry. The Department of Health was approached by the Portman Group, which hoped its charitable arm, The Drinkaware Trust, would be a suitable vehicle to deliver the proposed new fund. After consultation and considerable negotiations between a variety of stakeholders between 2005-2006, "a Memorandum of Understanding between the Government, Devolved Administrations and The Portman Group was signed on 29 June 2006, whereby it was agreed that, as soon as was “reasonably practicable, the governance, funding base and activities of the existing Drinkaware Trust will be re-structured to fulfil the educational, community and awareness campaigning role envisaged in the Alcohol Harm Reduction Strategy for a fund, voluntarily financed by the alcohol industry (producers and retailers), but with broadly-based support to tackle alcohol-related harms". [33]

English Alcohol Harm Reduction Strategy

The UK government, in response to escalating levels of alcohol related harm, consulted a group of experts to provide evidence on which to base a strategy to reduce the growing problem. Seventeen independent experts provided evidence which supported raising the price of alcohol and limiting availability. However the strategy which emerged from the government did not accept the findings of the expert group. Instead the government referred to only one "alcohol misuse" group, the Portman Group. The strategy ignored the original expert group's recommendations and adopted the "language and ideas of the alcohol industry" [34]. Alex Stevens at the European Institute of Social Services at the University of Kent noted "This seems a clear example where external pressure on government by a powerful group has influenced the use of evidence in policy" [35].

Funding Members

Full Members who fund the Portman Group are as follows:

Former Funding Members

Another 140 companies are signed up to the Portman Group Code of Practice, which encourages responsible marketing by the drinks industry. The on and off trade retailers in particular play a vital role in helping to enforce the decisions of the Independent Complaints Panel.

PR Companies

The Portman Group has worked with a range of PR and advertising companies including [36]:


The Portman Group stand accused of being dominated by alcohol producers in funding and governance. The Portman Group reportedly, offered several British scientists a fee of £2000 to write anonymous critiques undermining a publication calling for more controls on the sale of alcohol namely higher tax and more restricted availability. [37](see Marcus Grant)

Then came an episode that Plant describes as "very serious" and an "enormous ethical problem". The Portman Group, a lobby organisation set up by several big drinks manufacturers, was funding Plant's team to the tune of Pounds 500,000 over five years. In 1995 an employee of the Portman Group invited at least one researcher to write anonymous reports commenting on a World Health Organisation book about alcohol problems, edited by London-based addiction expert Griffith Edwards. Nick Heather, director of the Centre for Alcohol and Drug Studies at Newcastle University, was approached and declined. 'This was unacceptable because it was anonymous and because I was being offered a relatively large amount of money (Pounds 2,000) to do it,' says Professor Heather, who was then phoned by John Duffy, a statistician within Plant's group, who wanted the names of alternative reviewers.
The incident featured on a Dispatches television programme and was a factor in the breakdown in the relationship between Plant and Duffy. 'We reported this to the university and dissociated ourselves from Duffy,' says Plant. 'The issue was anonymity. Researchers have to maintain a transparent and open relationship about their funding agencies.' Duffy later left and now works in the Chief Scientist's Office at the Scottish Office in Edinburgh. As a civil servant he says he is not permitted to speak to The THES. [38]
'As a kind of psychotherapy we got together with an academic from Newcastle University after that incident and wrote a paper about ethics, research and funding,' says Plant. But over the past three years the fall-out has rippled through the team, affecting its work. In October Plant finally severed his ties with Edinburgh. Both he and the university agree that the psychiatry department's research plans (for biological and genetic research) do not conform with the type of social science research the alcohol and health research group was carrying out. When the team's core funding, from the Portman Group, ran out last year, Plant made a move.[39]

Other criticisms include its lack of independence from the alcohol industry evident in it ignoring or discrediting evidence that does not fit with the industry’s perspective. The educational campaigns fronted by TPG, now done by the Drinkaware Trust place too much emphasis on personal responsibility and ignore the cultural or social aspects of alcohol culture and furthermore, underplay the risks associated with alcohol.

Overall many critics are concerned that the group is a Social Aspects Organisation whose aim is to manage issues that threaten the alcohol business [40] Perhaps the most serious criticism regards the influence the Portman Group has over alcohol research, particularly following the decision to appoint its then chief executive Jean Coussins to the Alcohol Education and Research Council. Professor Robin Room argued against Coussins appointment: "In my view, an organisation which has taken such a partisan position specifically on research findings should not be on the board of a semi governmental organisation which is supporting alcohol research with public money." He added: "If a Portman Group staff member remains on the AERC board, it will severely compromise the AERC’s reputation and capacity to function as a scientific funding body operating in the public interest." Other prominent alcohol researchers agree including Griffith Edwards, professor of addiction at the Institute of Psychiatry, London, and editor of Addiction, agreed: "Jean Coussins is not a representative of the brewing industry but of a lobby group. The Portman Group has lobbied government intensively on behalf of the drinks industry, arguing that it is not drinking that matters, but drunkenness. [41]


All of the directors of the Portman Group come from the alcohol industry and hold current directorships with large corporations who produce and distribute alcohol, with the exception of the chief executive who only sits on the Portman board. Many also are directors of trade associations such as The British Beer and Pub Association and the The Drinkaware Trust. On 14th August 2009 the group announced a new chairman, Seymour Fortescue making him the first chair to come from out with the alcohol industry elite. With a background in self regulation and health education Fortescue is the ideal candidate. Current Directors

Former Directors



  1. The Portman Group About US accessed January 2010
  2. The Portman Group History accessed January 2010
  3. Jim Carey, 1997. Recreational Drug Wars: Alcohol Versus Ecstasy Extract From the book Ecstasy Reconsidered Accessed April 2007
  4. The Grocer, November 27th 2004, Do we need a Portman for food? accessed via Nexis UK May 23rd 2008
  5. The Grocer, November 27th 2004, Do we need a Portman for food? accessed via Nexis UK May 23rd 2008
  6. The Grocer, November 27th 2004, Do we need a Portman for food? accessed via Nexis UK May 23rd 2008
  7. Jim Carey,1997. Recreational Drug Wars: Alcohol Versus Ecstasy Extract From the book Ecstasy Reconsidered Accessed April 2007
  8. The Portman Group Promoting Responsible Drinking Company Web Site
  9. Coussins J. The Portman Group does not represent alcohol industry. BMJ 2004;329:404 accessed January 2010
  10. BMA Scotland Written response to the Scottish government’s proposed strategy to tackle alcohol misuse in Scotland accessed January 2010
  11. School of Health and Related Research, University of Sheffield, Model-based appraisal of alcohol minimum pricing and off-licensed trade discount bans in Scotland: a Scottish adaptation of the Sheffield alcohol policy accessed January 2010
  12. BMA Scotland Written response to the Scottish government’s proposed strategy to tackle alcohol misuse in Scotland accessed January 2010
  13. Portman Group Website Changing Scotland’s relationship with alcohol: a response from the Portman Group to the consultation document from the Scottish government accessed January 2010
  14. Scottish Government Changing Scotland’s relationship with alcohol: a discussion paper on our strategic approach accessed January 2010
  15. Portman Group WebsiteBMA ignores world class regulations accessed January 2010
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  17. Donaldson L. (2008) 150 years of the annual report of the chief medical officer: on the state of public health 2008 accessed January 2010
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  19. Alcohol Concern, Leading health charities call for ban on advertising alcohol price promotions accessed January 2010
  20. LAPE 2011 Topography of Drinking Behaviour in England accessed 29th August 2011
  21. The Portman Group Letters to the Editor accessed 29th August 2011
  22. The Portman Group Letters to the Editor accessed 29th August 2011
  23. Portman Group 28th May 2009, BREWER'S PUB PROMOTION NOT IRRESPONSIBLE accessed January 2010
  24. Portman Group 3rd December 2009 TOKYO* BEER BANNED accessed 10th February 2010
  25. The Portman Group What We Believe accessed 10th December 2009
  26. ScHARR, University of Sheffield, September 2009 Model-Based Appraisal of Alcohol Minimum Pricing and Off-Licensed Trade Discount Bans in Scotland: A Scottish adaptation of the Sheffield Alcohol Policy Model version 2 accessed December 12th 2009
  27. Sir Liam Donaldson (16th March 2009) 150 years of the Annual Report of the Chief Medical Officer: On the state of public health 2008 accessed 17th December 2009
  28. The Portman Group (September 2008) Changing Scotland’s Relationship with Alcohol: A Discussion Paper: Response from The Portman GroupAlcohol: A Discussion Paper: Response from The Portman Group accessed 3rd December 2009
  29. Alcohol Concern (19th June 2009)available LEADING HEALTH CHARITIES CALL FOR BAN ON ADVERTISING ALCOHOL PRICE PROMOTIONS accessed 14th December 2009
  30. The British Medical Association (September 2009) Under the influence The damaging effect of alcohol marketing on young people accessed 14th December 2009
  31. The Portman Group (13th July 2009)Alcohol Ad Rules Effective accessed 15th December 2009
  32. The Drinkaware trustBackground and Origins Last accessed January 2007
  33. The Scottish Government October 27th 2006 Memorandum of Understanding between The Portman Group, the Department of Health, the Home Office, Scottish Executive, Welsh Assembly Government and Northern Ireland Office Re: The Drinkaware Trust accessed October 2009
  34. Alex Stevens, Survival of the Ideas that Fit: An Evolutionary Analogy for the Use of Evidence in Policy, Social Policy & Society 6:1, 25–35, 2007 Cambridge University Press
  35. Alex Stevens, Survival of the Ideas that Fit: An Evolutionary Analogy for the Use of Evidence, in Policy Social Policy & Society 6:1, 25–35, 2007 Cambridge University Press
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  37. Rob Baggott (2000) Joseph Rowntree Trust Alcohol Strategy and the Drinks Industry: a partnership for prevention?
  38. SIAN GRIFFITHS Over the limit?; Perspective; Profile; Martin Plant The Times Higher Education Supplement January 2, 1998, Issue 1313, Pg.13
  39. SIAN GRIFFITHS Over the limit?; Perspective; Profile; Martin Plant The Times Higher Education Supplement January 2, 1998, Issue 1313, Pg.13
  40. Colin Drummond, Alcohol and Alcoholism Vol. 35, No. 2, pp. 217-218, 2000 Oxford Journals Book Review of Drinking Patterns and their Consequences Last accessed April 2008
  41. Susan Mayor, British Medical Journal 10 July 2004“Researcher objects to drinks industry representative sitting on alcohol research body” Accessed March 2007
  42. Marketing Week 19th September 2011 Portman Group hires public health expert as CEO accessed September 2011
  43. The Morning Advertiser 18th Feb 2008 Macfarlane named InBev UK & Ireland president accessed 11th January 2010
  44. Marketing Week 19th September 2011 Portman Group hires public health expert as CEO accessed September 2011
  45. FAME Company Report The Portman Group Accessed December 2009