General practitioners' (GPs') recognition of, attitudes towards, and intervention for, excessive drinking and alcohol problems among their patients were assessed in a postal questionnaire survey. Levels of recognition of, and intervention for, excessive drinking by GPs were low. GPs did not routinely enquire about alcohol and had managed only small numbers of patients specifically for excessive drinking or alcohol problems in the previous year. Enquiry about alcohol issues was elicited mainly by physical symptoms or by new patient registrations. Although 83% of GPs felt prepared to counsel excessive drinkers, only 21% felt effective in helping patients reduce consumption. Over the past 10 years, there appears to have been an increase in numbers of GPs who feel that they should be working with alcohol issues, but fewer GPs perceive themselves as being effective in this work. The main barriers to brief alcohol intervention were given as insufficient time and training, and lack of help from government policy; the main incentives related to availability of appropriate support services and proven efficacy of brief interventions.