AIMS: Local alcohol policies can be effective in reducing alcohol-related harm. The aim of this study was to examine local government responses to alcohol-related problems and identify factors influencing their development and adoption of alcohol policy. DESIGNSETTINGS AND PARTICIPANTS: Case studies were used to examine local government responses to alcohol problems in three New Zealand communities: a rural town, a provincial city and a metropolitan city. Newspaper reports, local government documents and key informant interviews were used to collect data which were analysed using two conceptual frameworks: Kingdon's Streams model and the Stakeholder model of policy development. MEASUREMENTS: Key informant narratives were categorized according to the concepts of the Streams and Stakeholder models. FINDINGS: Kingdon's theoretical concepts associated with increased likelihood of policy change seemed to apply in the rural and metropolitan communities. The political environment in the provincial city, however, was not favourable to the adoption of alcohol restrictions. The Stakeholder model highlighted differences between the communities in terms of power over agenda-setting and conflict between politicians and bureaucrats over policy solutions to alcohol-related harm. These differences were reflected in the ratio of policies considered versus adopted in each location. Decisions on local alcohol policies lie ultimately with local politicians, although the policies that can be adopted by local government are restricted by central government legislation. CONCLUSIONS: The adoption of policies and strategies to reduce alcohol-related harm may be better facilitated by an agenda-setting process where no 'gate-keepers' determine what is included into the agenda, and community mobilization efforts to create competitive local government elections around alcohol issues. Policy adoption would also be facilitated by more enabling central government legislation.