To improve alcohol prevention in primary health care, it has been suggested that primary care nurses are an under-utilised resource. The aim of this study was to identify under what circumstances primary care nurses in Sweden are willing to engage in alcohol prevention. All nurses at three primary health care centres in Ostergötland, Sweden were invited to participate in focus group interviews; 26 nurses participated. The nurses considered primary health care to be just one among other sectors within the community with responsibility for alcohol prevention. The role of health care in alcohol prevention was perceived to be important but mainly secondary preventive. The nurses felt justified screening all patients' alcohol habits only when they could refer to an obligation or a time-limited project. Otherwise, they mainly wanted to engage in screening patients with alcohol-related symptoms or diagnoses and other risk groups. Reasons for refraining from alcohol screening and intervention included lack of self-efficacy, time consumption and fear of harming their relationship with the patient. New strategies for alcohol prevention in primary care are discussed.