The government has written to every local authority in England and Wales urging officials to implement the controversial yellow and red card system of disciplining drinks retailers.
Retailers who receive yellow-card warnings face a range of sanctions,
such as restrictions on opening hours, removal of the designated premises supervisor or a temporary licence suspension.
Stores which continued to breach licensing conditions, or which committed particularly heinous crimes, would receive a red card and face closure.
The letter was signed by licensing minister Gerry Sutcliffe, who said that powers granted by the Licensing Act are "not being consistently well used across the country". But a leading licensing lawyer has warned that the card system is not as simple as the Department
for Culture, Media & Sport suggests - and may even be illegal.
Jeremy Allen, of Poppleston Allen, said: "We think some sort of legislation would be required to change the way councils currently do things.
"They seem to be talking about a couple of licensing reviews, each of which can be subject to an appeal. If a yellow card was simply a warning, then you might accept it, but coupled with some of the pretty extreme licensing conditions being discussed, I'm
sure you wouldn't."
Trade leaders are puzzled by the letter - which was not shared with retailers or industry representatives - with some suggesting that 10 Downing Street is behind it. "They recognise it's going to be hard if not impossible to introduce minimum pricing on alcohol, so they're looking to use this as their crusade," said one senior source.
So far councils have shown no appetite for the card system, but Allen thinks this may change. "It's very difficult to predict what councils will do - some are much more active than others," he said. "I'm sure some will say 'not on your nelly' and just not do it, but I'm equally certain that some will read the letter and say 'that's a government instruction'."