Background: Brief interventions by primary care physicians have been shown to be effective in reducing both smoking and excessive drinking. However, physicians seem to target smoking more often than drinking. We aimed to explore this difference in health promotion practises for finding ways to improve alcohol interventions in primary health centres.
Methods: Qualitative semistructured interviews of 35 physicians in four health centres in Finland, and triangulation by audit of notes made by these doctors concerning alcohol drinking and smoking in medical records (n = 1200) of randomly selected 20-60 years old patients, who had visited their physician at least once in a 12-month study period.
Results: On the basis of the interviews, there were five main differences in preventive work between issues of alcohol use and smoking: recognition, perceived importance as a health risk factor, intervention tools available, stigmatising label, and expectations about the effectiveness of counselling. In 106 (8.8%) of medical records, there was a mention of smoking, and in 82 (6.8%) of alcohol use (P < 0,0001). Quantity of alcohol consumption was described obscurely. When one of the visits was made for hypertension, diabetes, dyspepsia, general health check or heart arrhythmias, smoking was recorded more often than alcohol consumption.
Conclusions: Tobacco use was mentioned more often in medical records than alcohol drinking. Physicians were more comfortable in undertaking a preventive approach for smoking than for alcohol use. The factors contributing to this difference must be considered in any attempts to improve implementation of secondary prevention of alcohol misuse.