The age at which young people can buy alcoholic drinks in supermarkets and off-licences in the Republic of Ireland could be raised from 18 to 21 under new legislation to be brought before parliament by Easter, justice minister Brian Lenihan said.

The legislation could also outlaw below-cost alcohol sales - a major promotional tool of multiples since the abolition of Ireland's groceries order two years ago.

Lenihan has established a special advisory body to consider these measures among others and to report back to him by March.

The authorities are worried about a 17% rise in alcohol consumption in the past decade and how readily available alcohol is in the wake of off-trade growth in supermarkets, c-stores and petrol stations.

In the past six years, the number of stores selling alcohol has trebled to more than 1,800, partly due to more home drinking as a result of the ban on smoking in pubs.

Lenihan made it clear he favoured tough action to counter binge drinking and alcohol abuse. He warned that heavy promotion of alcohol by multiples could be outlawed.

"I can prohibit the public sale of alcohol up to the age of 21", he added, though this restriction, if introduced, was likely to apply only to off-licences and not the on-trade - a move that would almost certainly prove highly controversial.

The advisory group is also being asked to examine off-licence opening hours, the introduction of on-the-spot fines for some drink-related offences and how closure orders can be enforced when an offender operates a mixed trading business.

Lenihan's initiative is further evidence of a growing appetite across the British Isles to restrict the sale of alcohol in a bid to tackle binge drinking.

In Scotland, retailers are facing a ban on using promotions to sell booze and tough curbs on where they can merchandise alcohol in store.