A distinction is made between the clinical and public health justifications for screening and brief intervention (SBI) against hazardous and harmful alcohol consumption. Early claims for a public health benefit of SBI derived from research on general medical practitioners' (GPs') advice on smoking cessation, but these claims have not been realized, mainly because GPs have not incorporated SBI into their routine practice. A recent modeling exercise estimated that, if all GPs in England screened every patient at their next consultation, 96% of the general population would be screened over 10 years, with 70-79% of excessive drinkers receiving brief interventions (BI); assuming a 10% success rate, this would probably amount to a population-level effect of SBI. Thus, a public health benefit for SBI presupposes widespread screening; but recent government policy in England favors targeted versus universal screening, and in Scotland screening is based on new registrations and clinical presentation. A recent proposal for a national screening program was rejected by the UK National Health Service's National Screening Committee because 1) there was no good evidence that SBI led to reductions in mortality or morbidity, and 2) a safe, simple, precise, and validated screening test was not available. Even in countries like Sweden and Finland, where expensive national programs to disseminate SBI have been implemented, only a minority of the population has been asked about drinking during health-care visits, and a minority of excessive drinkers has been advised to cut down. Although there has been research on the relationship between treatment for alcohol problems and population-level effects, there has been no such research for SBI, nor have there been experimental investigations of its relationship with population-level measures of alcohol-related harm. These are strongly recommended. In this article, conditions that would allow a population-level effect of SBI to occur are reviewed, including their political acceptability. It is tentatively concluded that widespread dissemination of SBI, without the implementation of alcohol control measures, might have indirect influences on levels of consumption and harm but would be unlikely on its own to result in public health benefits. However, if and when alcohol control measures were introduced, SBI would still have an important role in the battle against alcohol-related harm.