Economic growth and personal prosperity have fuelled alcohol misuse in Ireland in recent years to such an extent that the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, has called for tough action. Ben Cooper looks at the legislative changes being proposed and asks whether the positive role alcohol has had in Irish culture is a thing of the past.

Amid the growing concern globally about alcohol abuse, the announcement that another country is planning tougher drinking laws is not headline news. All over world, governments are grappling with the alcohol abuse issue and the implementation of tougher legislation has become commonplace. However, when the country concerned is Ireland, heads will inevitably turn.

It is not surprising that the Taoiseach Bertie Ahern's recent speech outlining new legislation on drinking attracted considerable attention outside the country. Unfair and unhelpful racial stereotyping aside, the Irish would generally be viewed as having something of an affinity with alcohol.

Whether through iconic drinks brands such as Baileys and Guinness or the globalisation of the "The Irish Pub" as a retail concept, Ireland enjoys an enduring image as a place where alcohol consumption is part of a welcoming, sociable and easy-going way of life. In short, alcohol consumption is identified closely with positive elements of Irish culture.

For the alcohol industry, that the Irish government now identifies alcohol as more a scourge than benign feature of the nation's heritage is sobering indeed. One of the most critical liberal responses to anti-alcohol rhetoric has been to show examples - real or hypothetical - of positive drinking cultures, where alcohol consumption is in harmony with society without disadvantages or misuse. Once Ireland might have been held up as an example of this but clearly no longer.

Ahern's recent comments regarding alcohol abuse reiterate points made by Justice Minister Michael McDowell in April. McDowell promised legal reform following a report from a government-appointed commission into the problems of alcohol abuse, which set out a number of reforms. The report from the Commission on Liquor Licensing acknowledged that the pub was the centre of much of the social life in the country but that increasing prosperity had led to an increase in drunkenness and under-age drinking.

This is underlined by statistics on per capita alcohol consumption. Since 1990, per capita alcohol consumption in Ireland has increased from 8 litres to 11.4 litres, against an EU average of 9.1 litres. This has coincided with a period of strong economic growth for Ireland as the "Celtic Tiger" reaped the benefits of EU membership. Not only is this a fairly sharp rise but it has come at a time when per capita consumption is falling in most countries.

McDowell said he "wholeheartedly" agreed with the commission's recommendation that pub promotions which encouraged excessive consumption should be prohibited and that pubs should be allowed to ban under-18s from their premises. One of the legal changes McDowell proposed is that under-18s would be banned outright from licensed premises after 7pm or 8pm. McDowell was also behind the idea of discouraging the development of so-called "superpubs", in favour of smaller, neighbourhood pubs and bars.

McDowell said the smaller pubs had an "atmosphere and ambience that encourages moderate social consumption of alcohol rather than excessive consumption and binge-drinking that has become so common in recent years".

In May, the determination of the Irish government to tackle the problem head-on became even more evident when, in a speech at the European Brewers Convention in Dublin, the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, set out a more hardline approach to alcohol policy.

Ahern quoted an international study which concluded that Ireland's heavy drinking culture was costing the country €2.3 billion a year, almost 2% of national output, in reduced productivity, crime, healthcare and other various costs. But Ireland suffers from the same sin tax dilemma faced by most countries in that while there is a cost to alcohol consumption, the drinks business brings in an estimated €1.8 billion per year - some 6% of the total tax yield - in excise and VAT.

But clearly the rising consumption and particularly the alarming findings about underage misuse have spurred Ahern's government into action. In one survey in February, almost one third of Irish teenagers admitted they had been binge drinking three or more times in a 30-day period. Among the measures proposed was a ban on alcohol advertising on TV and radio before 10pm and on public transport and in cinemas where films for under-18s are being shown. An advertising bill is expected to be published by the end of the year.

Ahern also said the government "proposed to prohibit low-cost selling of alcohol products", through sales promotion devices like happy hours and free bars. The government is also proposing the introduction of health warnings on promotional materials for all alcoholic drinks.

As in most countries, the Irish drinks industry realises it cannot play down the negative impact of misuse but is inclined to place the emphasis on self-regulation.

Pat Barry, spokesman for Diageo, the company which owns both Guinness and Baileys, said the industry was aware of the growing prevalence of alcohol abuse in Ireland. He pointed out that industry-led educational programmes designed to help bar staff deal with underage drinking and drunkenness, were in place, in addition to responsible consumption campaigns.

On the subject of binge-drinking and calls for more regulation, the chief executive of the Vintners' Federation of Ireland, Tadg O'Sullivan, questioned the necessity for further legislation, saying that it had been illegal for publicans to serve drunk people alcohol since 1872. "Anything that leads to the abuse of alcohol needs to be addressed, but if I get too drunk and fall over, I'm not going to go and blame someone else for selling it to me," O'Sullivan said.

But while some industry representatives view Ahern's thinking as draconian, the Taoiseach is not going far enough for some of his political opponents. Fine Gael justice spokesperson John Deasy said the partial kerbs on advertising would only "scratch the surface of a national problem". "Only a total ban will have the necessary impact on the drinking habits of young people," Deasy said. "Does the Taoiseach really believe that 15 and 16-year-olds never watch television or listen to the radio after 10pm? If he does then he is even more out of touch than I thought."

But even if Ahern is not going far enough for some, it would appear that he is prepared to go further than any Taoiseach before him, faced with what his government sees as an escalating and worrying problem.

Moreover, underlining the significant swing in the Irish government's approach to alcohol policy, it would appear that the country is set to become a key mover in tighter alcohol controls in the EU as a whole. Ahern plans to propose an EU-wide ban on alcopops when Ireland takes over the EU presidency in January.

The Irish government's primary motivation for seeking a EU-wide ban on alcopops is that EU rules on free movement of goods make the imposition of a ban in Ireland - something it has stated it would do tomorrow if it could - impracticable. However, the idea that the government of Ireland, a country with a traditionally permissive view towards alcohol consumption, might now be lining up with the more hardline Nordic countries when it comes to discussing alcohol policy in the EU is also something for the drinks industry to ponder.