By Nick Triggle
Health reporter, BBC News
Alcohol misuse is a major problem for the NHS
Ministers have told the drinks industry to act more responsibly or face new laws governing alcohol sales.
A review of retailers showed many were not following a voluntary code calling on them to display details on units and to encourage sensible drinking.
Ministers have responded by launching a consultation on proposed laws covering happy hours, promotion and labelling.
It comes as figures for England suggest the scale of alcohol-related hospital admissions is much higher than thought.
NHS Information Centre data had suggested the figure for hospital admissions was just over 200,000 last year.
But this only covered illness caused directly by alcohol such as liver disease.
Department of Health figures for England showed that when deaths from cancer, heart disease and strokes were taken into account the total topped 800,000 last year.
The figure represents a doubling of the numbers in the past four years, leaving the cost to the NHS standing at £2.7bn.
Doctors said drinking levels were now a major health concern.
But public health minister for England Dawn Primarolo preferred to focus on the role of industry, saying the response to the voluntary code - parts of which were introduced in 1998 - was "disappointing".
"The evidence clearly makes this the right time to consult on a far tougher approach to the alcohol industry.
"Obviously individuals have to take responsibility for their drinking, but others, including the industry, also have a role to play."
But she dismissed suggestions that the relaxation in licensing laws had made the situation worse.
The consultation, which will run until October, covers a range of initiatives which would be applied UK-wide. These include:
• Curbs possibly being introduced on happy hours
• Bars and pubs being forced to serve drinks in smaller glasses as well as larger ones
• Checkout displays in shops
• Labelling to show how many units each drink contains and what the recommended drinking levels are
On labelling, the industry was first asked to display the number of units in each drink back in 1998, but a recent survey by consultants KPMG showed 43% of products did not display the information.
The review also revealed that just 3% were displaying the labelling scheme in its entirety.
However, the deadline for the recommended limits is not until the end of the year.
Another review is planned to coincide with that, by which time the government's review of the impact of pricing on alcohol consumption will have been fully completed by Sheffield University.
Interim findings published to coincide with the consultation suggested cheap prices encouraged increased consumption in the young and heavy drinkers.
This report is seen as a key piece of evidence as experts have claimed that the rise in consumption seen since the 1970s is intrinsically linked to falling prices.
Professor Ian Gilmore, president of the Royal College of Physicians and chairman of the UK Alcohol Health Alliance, pointed out one in four adults is drinking more than the recommended daily amount.
Alcohol 'too cheap'
"This is not just something affecting a small minority, it is not about the binge-drinking culture, it is affecting a large part of society.
"If we don't get to grips with it, it will have serious health repercussions.
"The key to tackling this is price. Alcohol is too cheap and that has driven up consumption."
But industry representatives said new laws were unnecessary.
Jeremy Beadles, chief executive of the Wine and Spirit Trade Association, said the proposals would just increase the price for responsible drinkers.
Instead, he said ministers should concentrate on using the current framework to promote moderation.
"Culture change will take time, but we should start by enforcing the numerous laws we have and build on the education and information programmes."