Commentary on Maclennan et al. (2013): Evolution of local alcohol policy research. What's next?


Alcohol control advocates, policymakers and researchers in several countries have discovered—or, perhaps, rediscovered—local policy. For example, in the United States, the Community Preventive Services Task Force's Guide to Community Preventive Services (the ‘Community Guide’) recommends a number of interventions that, in at least some jurisdictions, can be put into place by enacting—or preventing the reversal of—local policy. These include maintaining limits on days and hours of sale, regulation of alcohol outlet density and preventing privatization of retail alcohol sales [1]. Other local policies, such as social host ordinances, have diffused widely in the United States, although there is not yet a scientific evidence base supporting their effectiveness [2]. Maclennan and colleagues offer an important contribution towards establishing a better understanding of local alcohol policy development by presenting case studies from the experiences in three New Zealand communities [3]. In a previous paper [4], the authors found fairly widespread public support for a number of important local alcohol policies in seven local government jurisdictions in New Zealand.; However, despite public support for policies that would increase restrictions on the availability and promotion of alcoholic beverages, the policies that were in place in these communities were relatively weak. This led Maclennan et al. to conduct case studies of policy development (reported in the current paper), assessing the usefulness of Kingdon's ‘Streams’ model (which emphasizes the problems, policies, and politics streams in policy development) [5], as well as the ‘Stakeholder’ model (which emphasizes the interactions of policy actors).

Why is this paper such an important contribution—or at least, a first, big, step? Over the past 10 years or so, we have come to understand that local alcohol policy—whether institutional or public policy—can be effective in reducing rates of alcohol-related problems in communities [1]. Moreover, localities are increasingly important as venues for alcohol control as national alcohol policy regimes are weakened, in response to alcohol industry pressure, ‘harmonization’ within the European Union and political parties and governments in thrall to the ideology of deregulation [6, 7], but there is a relative scarcity of published research on the local policy process. While translational and implementation research has blossomed in many quarters [8], those of us in the alcohol control field have seemed largely content with assessing efficacy, without also pursuing lines of research that could inform advocates and policymakers on the most advantageous places, and the most effective coalitions, strategies and tactics, to put local policy into place. Maclennan et al. is a good move in this direction, and may prove to be a catalyst for additional work.

What might be some fruitful paths to pursue? Simplistic formulations of policy development, such as those that assume that public opinion translates easily and directly into public policy (which I would argue has been a mainstay of much alcohol policy research), should be left behind. In the same vein, models that simply assert that ‘Big Alcohol’ gets whatever it wants with respect to policy should be rejected in favor of more nuanced models.

We can learn a considerably from other fields. First, research on local tobacco policy adoption has proliferated, and may provide useful models [9, 10]. Secondly, the literature on social movements—including research on advocacy organizations pursuing alcohol control—can provide useful leads as to effective ways of organizing, framing issues and selecting strategies and tactics [11-13]. Theory and research on the role of ideas (such as cognitive paradigms, normative frameworks, issue framings and epistemic communities), as well as political interests, in shaping public policy may also be useful [14]. There is now a well-developed field of theory and research on the diffusion of policy across units of government and nation states [15]. Finally, institutional theory, which stresses the importance of political, organizational and cultural institutions in shaping the construction, expression and realization of interests, could be applied usefully to understanding local alcohol policy development [16].

Declaration of interests