Public Opinion on Alcohol Policy: A Review of U.S. Research

Article excerpt

Public opinion on alcohol policy has received little research attention until recently, although a coherent research agenda in this area holds promise of a better understanding of the public health policymaking process. This paper reviews and critiques the major analyses of policy opinion in the United States, discusses national support for specific policy options, and addresses trends in policy opinion. The dynamics of policy opinion are complex, allowing for few generalizations. Environmentally based alcohol policies receive mixed levels of public support, and, overall, support decreased somewhat throughout the early 1990s. Recommendations for continued monitoring and improved assessment of policy opinions are made.

KEY WORDS: Alcohol, policy, United States, public opinion, research.

Although public sentiments concerning alcohol issues have long been a subject of historical and social research, public opinion in relation to specific alcohol policies has only recently emerged as a research area in its own right. In the late 1970s, Goodstadt et al. stated, "[apparently, no sophisticated studies of public attitudes towards [policies regarding] the pricing of alcoholic beverages have been completed" (1978: p. 1630). Approximately ten years later, while Crawford (1987) reviewed 266 studies of a variety of attitudes towards alcohol use and misuse, another review turned up "no published studies of public opinion on alcohol policy in the scientific literature" (Wagenaar & Streff, 1990: p. 190). (Wagenaar has subsequently added to the literature, as discussed later.) Leedham (1987: p. 935) observed that "public opinion data on alcohol and tobacco policy are rarely collected on a regular basis by policymakers. Only where the data feed into decision making in other policy areas, such as taxation policy, is the information collected as part of a data base." Leedham adds that tobacco policy has received more attention than alcohol policy. Thus it would appear that attention given to policy opinions per se has lagged behind that given to generic attitudes towards alcohol. Although the body of literature in this area has been growing, especially subsequent to the U.S. policy development project discussed in this special issue (Greenfield et al., 2004), the literature remains fragmented. Our intention here is to critically review major analyses of public opinion on alcohol policies in an effort to set a benchmark for the field and make suggestions for future research.

The emergence of a coherent agenda for alcohol policy opinion research has the potential to improve both theoretical understanding of the role played by public opinion in public policy making (Greenfield, 1994) and the evaluation of which public health policy strategies hold the greatest promise of support (Room et al., 1995). While public opinion in and of itself is seldom the central determinant in policy agenda setting, it is in principle an important part of the policymaking mix. A considerable literature in political science addresses the role of public opinion in policymaking (Arnold, 1990; Gozenbach, 1996; Kingdon, 1995, p. 1994; Stimson et al., 1994). Leedham's succinct description is that public opinion "forms part of the context within which strategy is determined and provides an aspect of legitimacy for a chosen course of action," playing a validating role in the policymaking process (Leedham, 1987, p. 935). From a public health perspective, policy opinion research also has the potential to reveal gaps in public understanding of health issues and opportunities for enhanced educational efforts aimed at helping the public understand the rationales for particular policies.

To some extent, the growth of interest in alcohol policy opinion research reflects the shift, begun in the 1970s and established by the mid-1980s, from an alcoholism focus in research literature to an alcohol problems focus generative of a diverse array of public policy proposals directed toward strengthening environmental controls (Edwards et al. …