Scotland has been ambitious in its policy and legislative efforts to tackle alcohol-related harm, efforts which include the innovative feature of a ‘public health objective’ within local alcohol licensing. However, the persistence of alcohol-related harms and inequalities requires further examination of both the overarching Scottish alcohol strategy and its specific implementation. A qualitative case study was undertaken to explore how alcohol policy is implemented locally in Scotland, with data generated from (i) documentary analysis of 12 relevant policies, legislation, and guidance documents; and (ii) a thematic analysis of semi-structured interviews with 54 alcohol policy implementers in three Scottish localities and nine national-level stakeholders. The data suggest there is a tension between the intentions of licensing legislation and the way it is enacted in practice, and that accountability emerges as an important factor for understanding why this occurs. In particular, there are a lack of accountability mechanisms acting upon Scottish Licensing Boards to ensure they contribute to the public health goals of the Scottish alcohol strategy. From a public health perspective, this has perpetuated a system in which Licensing Boards continue to act with autonomy from the rest of the alcohol policy implementation system, creating a challenge to the achievement of public health goals. Alcohol policy in Scotland is likely to fall short of intended goals as long as the tension between licensing legislation and enacted licensing practices remains.
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