Dawn Primarolo said that there is a growing body of evidence suggesting that the industry is failing to live up to its voluntary code on alcohol sales with the estimated cost of alcohol abuse on the country's health service now at £2.7bn.
The UK drinks industry, which has launched a number of schemes encouraging voluntary and self-regulatory proposals on combating irresponsible drinking, could now face mandatory restrictions on how their products are sold.
The new findings form part of a consultation with a number of different groups and organisations and could lead to similar changes across Europe amidst an ongoing clampdown on drinks makers across the bloc.
As part of the proposals, the new measures could force retailers to display alcohol at off- licenses in a separate section of the store, while the use of checkout displays would also be brought to an end.
Greater training for staff would also be offered in order to better recognise and prevent sales of alcohol to drunk and underage customers, while also providing point-of-sale information regarding the number of alcohol units in a product.
On-license trade such as pubs and bars will also be affected by the proposals, with restrictions on happy hour style promotions and glass sizes.
Primarolo said that the government was giving the industry until the end of the year to comply with these concerns or risk new mandatory measures requiring health and unit information to be put on their packaging.
"Around a quarter of the population drink to a harmful level," she stated. "These people could be drinking themselves into an early grave - we need the drinks industry to give them the help and information needed to drink at a safer level."
The calls follow the publication of new statistics and independent research into the full impact of alcohol consumption on health.
Primarolo pointed to new official national data, suggesting that, under a new methodology that considers 44 medical conditions caused by or associated with drinking, 811,000 admissions were made to hospitals in 2006. The previous figures were based on just three medical conditions.
Other findings by consultant KPMG suggested that some voluntary agreements made by industry were not being followed, while also suggesting promotions were not meeting agreements.
The public healthy ministry said that it was also considering interim findings from the University of Sheffield that claims to have found evidence across the globe that cheaper alcohol leads to higher consumption especially in young people.
However, the full findings of the report are not expected until later this year, the ministry of health said.
While some of the findings were yet to be completed, Primarolo claims that a tougher government stance on alcohol is required.
"Some sections of the industry are sticking to the voluntary codes, others are blatantly ignoring them," she stated. "This consultation will decide whether legally binding regulations for retailers and manufacturers to promote sensible drinking are the way forward."
Despite the mixed concerns regarding current alcohol policy, on an international basis, some self-regulatory policies in terms of the sale and promotion of alcohol have received support.
In May this year, the Portman Group said its code of practice has been named in the '50 Best' campaigns for alcohol harm reduction by the International Harm Reduction Association (IHRA), a development likely to strengthen support for continued industry involvement in ad regulation.
David Poley, chief executive of the Portman Group, said that the recognition of its code of practice reflected the initiative's success in addressing European concerns over alcohol abuse.
"We are mindful of the importance of securing widespread support for our code and independent complaints process from a diverse range of stakeholders," he stated. "This recognition suggests we are striking the right balance by protecting the public from irresponsible marketing while allowing companies reasonable commercial freedoms."
The Portman Group
The group's code calls on drink makers not to market their products at consumers under 18 years of age, while also encouraging them not to promote rapid or heavy consumption of the product through use of sexual imagery or bravado. Under the guidelines, packaging must also not use its alcoholic content as a dominant part of it packaging, or suggest that the product may improve a consumers mental or physical capabilities.