The government is poised to bind the drinks industry in tough new legislation after ruling that attempts at self-regulation have failed to stem alcohol disorder.
In a damning indictment of voluntary schemes monitoring the sale and promotion of alcohol, ministers have given their strongest indication yet that an increasing number of laws will frame the future of drinks retailing.
Curbs on promotions, point of sale, in-store sampling and restrictions on where alcohol is sited - along with how much is displayed - are among the draconian rules at the centre of a public consultation launched by the Department of Health.
The sweeping proposals follow the publication of two scathing reports into the workings of the industry - and have put the issue of minimum pricing firmly back on the agenda.
The first phase of an independent review into the effects of alcohol harm, pricing and promotion, conducted by Sheffield University, concluded that there was "strong and consistent" evidence that price increases and taxation can reduce consumption. It also said the binge-drinkers tended to buy cheaper products, adding that minimum pricing could
be a deterrent.
On promotions, the report said there was a further link to suggest deals influenced how much under-age and binge-drinkers consume.
In light of these assessments, a second wave of research will now get under way and be delivered to the Department of Health in August.
Despite highlighting the positive steps taken by the trade to embrace initiatives including Challenge 21 and the Drinkaware Trust's alcohol education campaign,
an analysis of the trade's current voluntary code by auditors KPMG revealed "a disturbing level of irresponsible and harmful practice". Based on a sample of 179 off-trade outlets, it hit out at cut-price deals, particularly by the major multiples. In contrast, it said wine merchants and specialist beer shops focused on product quality rather than price.
Home Office minister Tony McNulty said: "For standards to work well they should complement the law on alcohol sales, encourage people to drink more safely and be followed consistently across the country.
"The KPMG report tells us quite plainly that this is not happening. At best the standards are being applied in a fragmented way, at worst alcohol is being sold and marketed irresponsibly. We now need a new set of standards and over the next few months we will work intensively to breathe new life into the system. We have also made it quite clear that if necessary we will introduce legislation to make the new standards mandatory."
But Matthew Hughes, joint managing director
of Bargain Booze, said politicians had overlooked the trade's contribution to cutting alcohol harm and warned more legislation would cripple
retailers: "I'm disappointed they have used such negative language. There have been a lot of positive initiatives, and all self-regulated. This is not reflective of the huge strides that have been made and brushes under the carpet some huge successes, such as the St Neots project, which has seen a 94% drop in the number of under-age people found in possession of alcohol.
"I'm not saying that there's not more to be done, but four years ago I would have said there were some maverick retailers letting the side down - not now. The people who are left are trading very responsibly. We need a strong, unifying voice. You can see how any new legislation would work - with the local authorities who issue the licen ces in the first place
also being responsible for imposing these restrictions ."
Steve Barton, director at Brand Phoenix, echoed calls for
unity: "This is a real watershed moment, it's about as close to a draconian state as you can get. The door is very, very close to being blown off its hinges, allowing government control to
sweep through our industry. The case against the industry has gathered momentum and we've been too benign, we're getting walked on."
He added that Tim How, Majestic's retiring boss, faced a tough fight when taking up the position of Wine & Spirit Trade Association chair. "He has a fierce opening battle. He has to do what no one has been able to do and unite the trade."
Jeremy Beadles, WSTA chief executive, said the consultation mirrored much of what the body was already challenging in Scotland. "You are not going to change culture by putting alcohol in a specific part of the store or by making people queue at a different till, these will just be an irritant for retailers and annoy customers. We need better enforcement of the existing laws and better education."