Alcohol Policy: Gaps between Legislative Action and Current Research

By Wagenaar, Alexander C.; Toomey, Traci L. | Contemporary Drug Problems, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview
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Alcohol Policy: Gaps between Legislative Action and Current Research


Wagenaar, Alexander C., Toomey, Traci L., Contemporary Drug Problems


This paper compares alcohol policies under debate in U.S. state legislatures with policies that have been the focus of research attention. We reviewed the research literature to identify empirical studies of each policy and types of outcome variables analysed. The two most evaluated alcohol control policies are the minimum legal drinking age and excise tax. Eight other policies had 20 or more studies evaluating them. The remaining alcohol policies received little attention in the research literature. Alcohol consumption and traffic crashes were the most frequent outcomes used in alcohol policy studies. Most studies evaluated policy changes at the state or national level, with few studies of local or institutional policies. During 1997 some 463 alcohol control bills were introduced at state legislatures. Many specific alcohol policies under debate in state legislatures have little research evidence to guide policy decision-making, pointing to areas where future research is needed.

The consumption of alcoholic beverages is associated with a variety of social and health problems (Baker et al., 1992; Hayward et al., 1992; Roizen, 1982, 1992; Leigh, 1990; Stall et al., 1986). Furthermore, the public reports high levels of concern about such problems and supports a wide range of regulatory and programmatic efforts to reduce alcohol-related damage (Wagenaar & Streff, 1990; Giesbrecht & Greenfield, in press; Wagenaar et al., in press). As a result, cities, states or provinces, and national governments regularly debate, enact, and implement numerous changes in alcohol policy. Although there is a sizable literature on the effects of certain alcohol policies, such as minimum drinking age and alcohol taxes, many other dimensions of alcohol policy have rarely been studied. The objective of the current study was to compare alcohol policy topics under debate in state legislatures across the U.S. with alcohol policy topics that have been the focus of research attention. Gaps between the extant research literature and current legislative debates illustrate research opportunities for further studies needed to meet the information needs of policymakers.

Methods

Dimensions of alcohol policy

We categorized 36 specific categories of alcohol control policies by the mechanism by which they affect drinking behavior, such as whether they affect: (1) how, when, and where alcohol is sold, (2) where and when alcohol is consumed, (3) the price of alcohol, (4) the broader social environment surrounding alcohol use, (5) how existing policies are enforced, and (6) how underage youths obtain alcohol (see Table 1). The 36 policy areas may also be differentiated by whether they can be implemented at national, state, local, or institutional levels. Some policies, such as warning labels on alcohol products, can be implemented only on a national level, since alcohol products are produced in a variety of states and transported across state lines. Other policies, such as server training, can occur at all four levels. National, state, and local governments can mandate that all alcohol servers in their jurisdictions participate in a server-training program. An individual alcohol establishment could have an institutional policy requiring all servers in that establishment to participate in a training program, even without any public policy requiring such training.

Identification of policy studies

We identified policy evaluation studies by: (1) reviewing five previous research reviews (Ashley & Rankin, 1988; Moskowitz, 1989; Toomey et al., 1993; Wagenaar, 1993; Edwards et al., 1994) and (2) searching the ETOH and Current Contents electronic databases of alcohol literature for empirical studies using key alcohol policy terms.^ The review articles included many studies conducted and published in journals in the 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s. The search of the ETOH bibliographic database included studies published since the early 1960s and was restricted to journal articles only; searches on Current Contents included all journal articles since 1994.

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