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There is an underlying incompatibility between government efforts to minimize the harm associated with alcohol, particularly by regulating its supply, and international commercial treaties that promote the freer flow of goods, services and investment. These treaties have already forced changes to many government measures affecting alcohol availability and control, primarily by constraining the activities of government alcohol monopolies and by altering taxation regimes. The North American Free Trade Agreement and the World Trade Organization agreements open new avenues for challenges against alcohol control measures. Some of these agreements extend beyond trade, border measures and differential taxation and allow challenges that intrude into areas of non-discriminatory domestic regulation affecting market access, intellectual property, investment and services. Effective protection from these agreements for vital public health measures has rarely been obtained, although it is increasingly essential. The WTO "services" agreement, basically unknown to the public, is currently being re-negotiated and poses the gravest new challenge to policies designed to influence patterns of alcohol use and minimize alcohol-related harm. In future, these international agreements will probably affect adversely those alcohol approaches considered to be the most effective or promising. These include: maintaining effective state monopolies, restricting the number and locations of retail outlets, taxing and regulating beverages according to alcohol strength, restricting commercial advertising, and maintaining and enhancing public alcohol education and treatment programs. These effects can, in turn, be expected to increase the availability and access to alcohol, to lower alcohol taxes, and to increase advertising and promotion, resulting in increased alcohol consumption and associated health problems. Until more balanced international rules are developed, the challenge facing alcohol policy researchers is to defend national and local alcohol measures from further erosion. This will require greater coordination with researchers in other affected sectors, intervention with government representatives in health and related areas and the promotion of alternative approaches to current international commercial agreements.