Addiction affects the lives of all of human kind, either directly or indirectly. The cost to individuals and societies is immense and tackling the problem is as much one for policy makers as clinicians, counsellors and scientists. Ethical issues permeate much of the work of all these groups. The issue of what is right and wrong, morally defensible or morally unacceptable arises at both an individual and societal level. This special issue contains 21 commissioned articles from leading figures in addiction research. To set the scene for these in-depth analyses, this article reports the results of an expert panel survey on addiction, ethics and public policy. A total of 199 people from 24 countries identified as first authors of research papers abstracted in Addiction Abstracts in 1994 and 1995 completed a postal questionnaire asking their views on a range of issues. They were asked to state their position on the issue and to identify what they considered to be the most important factors in the decision. Among the findings of interest were: a majority believed that possession of cannabis should be legal but that possession of 'hard drugs' should be illegal. An overwhelming majority believed that tobacco advertising should be banned, that smoking should be prohibited in public buildings and offices and that the legal age for tobacco sales should be 18 or more. A majority believed that researchers should not accept backing from tobacco companies; opinion on accepting backing from the alcohol industry was more evenly divided. An overwhelming majority believed that drug addicts should be able to attend treatment centres on demand and that some form of methadone maintenance should be available to addicts who want it. The survey should prove a useful resource when debating the issues in policy and research arenas.