A report commissioned by the government and carried out by auditors KPMG - leaked to the BBC on Monday - showed that dozens of licensed outlets engaged in "irresponsible and harmful practices" such as 'happy hour' drinks promotions and sales to the underaged and intoxicated customers.
While the most serious allegations were aimed at pubs and clubs, undermining claims that the industry has put its house in order, the report authors also expressed concern about underage sales in the off trade. It follows a similar study by Alcohol Concern, which claimed that voluntary codes of practice in the licensed trade, signed by various industry associations including ACS, were "failing to safeguard the public".
The government is expected to use the reports as ammunition for a stronger, and possibly mandatory, code of practice governing the sale of alcohol in all sectors, covering training, responsible retailing and procedures to avoid underage sales.
However, trade associations maintain that the existing standards document was only ever intended to be a statement of best practice rather than a binding code. ACS public affairs director Shane Brennan also questioned how a mandatory code would work. "How would it be any different to existing legislation?" he argued. "Conditions and sanctions on premises are covered by the new Licensing Act, and there are already very strict regulations surrounding underage sales."
Legislation concerning minimum or promotional pricing would be difficult to introduce because of competition law, he added.