The pub industry has been forced to defend the way it sells alcohol after a week of pressure from politicians and police keen to reduce the levels of binge- and underage drinking and alcohol-fuelled violence.
Industry commentators fear that, with the introduction of the smoking ban accomplished, the on-trade is likely to be dragged into the current row about the irresponsible retailing of booze.
Peter Fahy, chief constable of Cheshire, called for the legal age to buy alcohol to be raised from 18 to 21 after three teenage boys were charged with the murder of a man in Warrington. Claims were made by the police that alcohol was "too cheap and too available" to underage drinkers.
The Home Office is already in talks with the drinks industry over pricing as part of a joint investigation with the Department of Health into the cost and promotion of alcohol.
A Home Office spokeswoman said it was "too early to speculate on the outcome", as the findings will not be published until April next year. However, reports in the national media suggest that legislation to impose a blanket ban on promotions such as happy hours is likely.
In response to claims about pricing, the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers (ALMR) has fought back through a Freedom of Information Act request to the Competition Commission, which revealed that £112.7m-worth of alcohol was sold below cost by supermarkets during June 2006.
Nick Bish, chief executive of the ALMR, said: "This type of discounting - which by any judgement is irresponsible - is not illegal, but they should not really be doing that."
Bish warned that retailers of alcohol, be they supermarkets or pubs, would "collectively be under the cosh" as "alcohol becomes the new tobacco".
Neil Williams, communications manager at the British Beer & Pub Association, said: "As an industry, we have taken action on drinks promotions. Since 2005 we have had a voluntary code, which basically prohibits happy hours."
By Christopher Walton