Academic journal article Contemporary Drug Problems

A Study of the Alcohol Policy Development Process in the United States: Theory, Goals, and Methods

Academic journal article Contemporary Drug Problems

A Study of the Alcohol Policy Development Process in the United States: Theory, Goals, and Methods

Article excerpt

Alcohol policy has frequently been the focus of research, community action, and political debate. An extensive literature over the past several decades has concerned the impact of various policy measures on rates of consumption and/or drinking-related chronic and acute effects (Bruun et al., 1975; Edwards et al., 1994; Holder & Edwards, 1995; Farrell, 1985; Holder, 1987, 1994; Mäkela et al., 1981; Moore & Gerstein, 1981; Moser, 1979; Mosher & Jernigan, 1989; Single et al., 1981). Two lines of evidence may have had an impact on the wide-scale consideration of aggregate-level alcohol policies as viable preventive measures in many Western countries (see Edwards et al., 1994). One indication is the impact of drinking patterns on a wide range of social and health problems, and the other is the effect of system and environmental factors on consumption and the cogent presentation of these findings over a quarter of a century. In the U.S., interest in alcohol control policies is increasingly evident in numerous developments at all three jurisdictional levels-local, state, and national. In contrast to the mid-1970s, by the early 1990s, preceding the project's start in 1996, it appeared that many more groups and organizations (Cahalan, 1991) were focusing on one or more of the following types of legislation: regulations aimed at managing promotion of alcoholic beverages, particularly to youths and ethnic minorities, at special events such as Halloween or cultural festivals, and on college campuses; taxation and pricing measures; ordinances related to physical availability of alcoholic beverages, e.g., density and related issues; and laws designed to reduce service to minors and intoxicated customers.

In a time of declining alcohol sales between approximately 1981 and the late 1990s (Greenfield et al., 2000; Midanik & Clark, 1994; Williams et al., 1992), various sectors of the alcohol industry have not remained passive but, on the contrary, have resisted the passage of such control regulations in whatever political or judicial forum seemed viable, as well as occasionally working to have "friendly" legislation introduced that might counteract the zeal of public health advocates if not the drying trend itself. Examples are the efforts by national beer organizations to reduce the excise tax on beer introduced several years ago, and sporadic efforts to rescind the 21-years-old minimum drinking age (MDA) legislation, which worked by withholding federal highway funds from states that retained or enacted younger MDAs. Their efforts can be readily explained as "reasonable" corporate actions, designed to offset or thwart policy gains that might be achieved by temperance-oriented coalitions. However, the alcohol industry groups also engage in legislative campaigns with apparent preventive objectives, so long as these are not incompatible with their commercial objectives. Mostly these are focused on individual responsibility, such as cracking down on underage purchasers or promoting zero-tolerance laws for underage drivers (e.g., Giesbrecht, 2000; see also Kaskutas, 2004, this issue). Similarly, advocacy groups ally with various religious and other groups to counter such industry-sponsored initiatives. Thus there is a dynamic policy community with contenders engaged in various skirmishes on a range of policy agendas, each seeking access and political opportunity. Policy entrepreneurs and players of all stripes appeal to the policymakers to appreciate the merit of their own approaches and see the inadequacy of their opponents'. In relation to health and transportation, these dynamic processes were well described in Kingdon's (1995 [1984]) seminal work, which formed a conceptual basis for the present research on alcohol-specific policy formation (summarized below).

Previous research on policy formation

Despite much ongoing research on the scientific basis of alcohol policy interventions (Edwards & Holder, 1995), few investigations have focused on the policy formation process itself (Greenfield, 1994). …

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