Aims. To study international and within country differences with regard to views by the general public on alcohol policy topics, describe associations with socio-demographic characteristics and drinking practices, and contrast opinions with variations in actual policies. Design, setting, subjects. Large-scale cross-sectional household surveys were conducted in Canada (n = 11 550) and the United States (n = 4004) in 1989-90, involving representative samples of adults aged 18 and older. Measures. Eleven alcohol policy topics were examined: alcohol taxes; hours of off-premise sale; legal drinking age; alcohol sales in corner stores; government advertising against alcohol; warning labels on alcohol products; alcohol advertising on TV; industry sponsorship of cultural or sports events; efforts to prevent service to drunken customers; prevention and education; and treatment. Findings. Even after controlling for drinking levels and respondent characteristics, policy measures that control physical or economic access to alcohol are not as strongly supported as those that provide information or focus on the heavy drinker. There was greater polarization of opinion within both countries for policy items relating to promotion of alcohol or control of physical, demographic or economic access, and virtually no polarization with regard to items such as curtailing service to drunken customers or providing information or treatment. In the jurisdiction with less restrictive measures on a particular policy, there seems to be greater public support for curtailing access to alcohol and, in some instances, more restrictive policies are associated with lower support for increasing restrictions. Conclusion. Public opinion data are an important resource in determining whether actual policies are compatible with the views of those affected by them. Disjunctions between research on the most effective policy interventions and views by the public point to special agenda for information dissemination and prevention initiatives.