Changes in the health promotional work undertaken in primary care, including the work needed to meet the ‘Health of the Nation’ alcohol targets, have led to a rapid expansion of the number of practice nurses in England and Wales. However, there has been little evaluation of this role. This study provides data, for the first time at a national level, about practice nurses’ work in identifying and managing patients drinking above recommended sensible guidelines. Data were collected by postal questionnaire from all nurses in a 50% random sample of 1852 practices (drawn from a general practitioner (GP) national study, undertaken at the same time). 43% of nurses responded from 62% of the targeted practices. Respondents reported identifying a mean of 3·1 patients per month who were drinking above recommended sensible guidelines. These patients tended to be male, above 40 years of age and in contact with the nurse for the first time about this problem. Most patients were categorized as having a potential alcohol problem; few were classified as currently dependent. Very little intervention work was undertaken by nurses except for referral to the GP. If real progress is to be made in meeting the ‘Health of the Nation’ targets on population alcohol consumption, then primary care work in identifying alcohol misusing patients needs to be developed as a matter of urgency. The patients identified by practice nurses are those patients relevant to the ‘Health of the Nation’ alcohol targets. More emphasis needs to be placed on the valuable contribution practice nurses can make, particularly through the use of screening instruments and brief interventions.