Academic journal article Contemporary Drug Problems

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

Academic journal article Contemporary Drug Problems

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

Article excerpt

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., 1994; Moore & Gerstein, 1981). Several sources of policy opinion data exist from the earlier period, including federally sponsored research (Harris, 1972, 1973a, 1973b, 1974) and studies of alcohol abuse in a social-problems context (Cahalan et al., 1974; Cameron, 1981; Goodstadt et al., 1978; McKenzie & Giesbrecht, 1981). Starting in 1989 as part of an emerging trend of systematic attempts to address policy opinion in a social epidemiological context, Canadian and American national alcohol surveys added items on specific alcohol control policies. Work reviewed comes from five major data sources on alcohol-related public attitudes and policy opinions: (a) the inclusion of 11 policy opinion questions (see Table 1) on the Canadian National Alcohol and Other Drugs Survey (NADS) in 1989 (Eliany et al. …

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