OBJECTIVE: Most patients who misuse alcohol do not receive alcohol counseling from their providers. This study evaluated primary care patient and provider characteristics associated with receipt of alcohol-related advice and whether patients were advised to drink less or to abstain. METHOD: Outpatients from seven Veterans Affairs (VA) general medicine clinics were eligible if they screened positive for alcohol misuse, completed the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test (AUDIT) and answered questions about alcohol-related treatment and advice. Hierarchical logistic regression was used to evaluate patient and provider characteristics associated with patient reports of alcohol-related advice from a primary care provider in the past year. RESULTS: Among 5191 patients with alcohol misuse in the past year, 1554 (30%) reported receiving alcohol-related advice from their primary care provider during that time. Of patients advised, 73% reported advice to abstain. The likelihood of reporting advice increased as AUDIT scores increased: from 13% of patients with AUDIT scores <8 to 71% of those with scores > or =20. After adjustment for important confounders, measures reflecting the severity of alcohol misuse were most strongly associated with receipt of alcohol-related advice. Adjusted analyses also revealed increased odds of receiving advice among patients who reported liver disease, hypertension, current smoking or continuity of care. No measured provider characteristic was associated with giving advice in the fully adjusted model. CONCLUSIONS: This multisite VA study found that most patients with alcohol misuse did not receive alcohol counseling from a primary care provider. Moreover, providers predominantly offered advice to abstain, and they appeared to focus on patients with the most severe problems due to drinking or medical contraindications to drinking.