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

By Greenfield, Thomas K.; Giesbrecht, Norman et al. | Contemporary Drug Problems, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

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


Greenfield, Thomas K., Giesbrecht, Norman, Kaskutas, Lee Ann, Johnson, Suzanne, et al., Contemporary Drug Problems


The project identified factors influencing U.S. federal alcohol policy formation and especially the role of research. It explored the applicability of John Kingdon's "Policy Stream" model involving three interacting policy streams: problem recognition, policy alternatives, and politics. Each stream is necessary but insufficient for policy formation, and coupling streams in "windows of opportunity" is a key to moving legislation. Federal alcohol-policy cases studied included excise taxes, alcohol promotion policies, federal agency reauthorization, and federally mandated health warnings. Data sources included key-informant interviewing with snowball sampling and archival data. We qualitatively analyzed government documents, scientific journals, print and electronic media, trade magazines, and newsletters. Sixty-four in-depth interviews were completed with public health activists, alcohol industry representatives, researchers, journalists, and people in executive and legislative branches of the government. We summarize methods used and challenges overcome, and provides an overview of the project's activities, with results detailed elsewhere in this special issue.

KEY WORDS: Alcohol, policy, United States, federal government, theory.

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. …

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