Relatively brief interventions have consistently been found to be effective in reducing alcohol consumption or achieving treatment referral of problem drinkers. To date, the literature includes at least a dozen randomized trials of brief referral or retention procedures, and 32 controlled studies of brief interventions targeting drinking behavior, enrolling over 6000 problem drinkers in both health care and treatment settings across 14 nations. These studies indicate that brief interventions are more effective than no counseling, and often as effective as more extensive treatment. The outcome literature is reviewed, and common motivational elements of effective brief interventions are described. There is encouraging evidence that the course of harmful alcohol use can be effectively altered by well-designed intervention strategies which are feasible within relatively brief-contact contexts such as primary health care settings and employee assistance programs. Implications for future research and practice are considered.