New plans for all-Ireland minimum alcohol price
Health authorities have decided upon a cross-border strategy on a minimum price for alcohol.
The proposals were outlined at the first formal North/South conference on alcohol misuse, held in Armagh on Thursday.
Health Minister Edwin Poots was joined by the Irish Republic's Health Minister Dr James Reilly and Minister of State for Health Roisin Shortall.
They said they hoped to agree a minimum drink price before December 2012.
Mr Poots said alcohol misuse was one of the main threats to public health in the province.
"Research has shown that it costs Northern Ireland up to £900m every year, and almost £250m of these costs are borne by the health and social care sector," he said.
"If we do not take significant and robust action, the costs to Northern Ireland, and the health and social care system in particular, will continue to grow."
He said there was a need to co-ordinate the introduction of the proposed new measures.
"We want to make sure we don't have a disparity where alcohol is one price north of the border and considerably more expensive south of the border, or vice versa," he added.
Ms Shortall told the Irish Times that both administations were closely monitoring the Scottish National Party's plan to introduce a minimum charge which is considering charging 45-50 pence per unit of alcohol.
This would mean that a bottle of cider with 14 units of alcohol, which currently costs £2.30, would be increased to £7.
In November, the Scottish government made a second bid to bring in legislation which would set a minimum price for a unit of alcohol.
It has already put in place a ban on "irresponsible" drinks promotions.
Reduce cheap alcohol availability
Dr Reilly said the conference had set the scene for an all-island collaborative approach for tackling issues relating to alcohol abuse.
"The areas we would like progress on a North/South basis are measures to reduce the availability of cheap alcohol and treatment and rehabilitation of those affected by alcohol misuse," he said.
"Alcohol use and misuse is an area where both jurisdictions can achieve a lot together - especially in dealing with the challenges that alcohol presents for young adults."
He highlighted the costs alcohol had on the Republic of Ireland, claiming 2,000 beds were occupied every night in Irish acute hospitals due to alcohol associated problems.
He added that it cost the healthcare system 1.2bn euros.
The conference brought together the policymakers and agencies from both both sides of the border for the first time to explore some of the common problems caused by alcohol.
Other speakers included Prof Sir Ian Gilmore, chairman of the UK Alcohol Health Alliance and also the European Alcohol and Health Forum Science Group; Dr Peter Anderson, an international public health consultant; and researcher Dr Fiona Measham.
Prof Gilmore welcomed this cross-border initiative.
"The health harms we are seeing in both the UK and Ireland are so great that we urgently need effective coalitions between partners such as this," he said.
"These allow mutual learning and the development of shared objectives."