Was Prohibition of alcohol good for us?
With all this debate on legalizing or outlawing certain drugs, I have a simple question to which I haven’t been able to find an answer. Was the rate of alcohol abuse lower or higher during prohibition than before or after it, and compared to now.
The initial answer was that Prohibition discouraged moderate drinking but encouraged excessive drinking, which was the principal drinking that took place in a speakeasy. See my book, Diseasing of America, pp. 41-42. In this view, a higher percentage of those drinking drank heavily and unhealthily.
However, a revisionist history arose to show that, with the decline in overall drinking, cirrhosis declined in the U.S. The explanation offered was that, despite many violations of alcohol prohibition, overall drinking nonetheless did decline.
However, more recently, Ethan Nadelmann and Mark Thornton have pointed out, cirrhosis was declining before Prohibition and continued to decline in other Western nations without prohibition during 1920-1933. The explanation appears to have been better diets and public health policies.
Moreover, other public health problems arose, such as an epidemic of wood alcohol poisoning, which had not previously been accounted as a Prohibition-related dysfunction.
Overall, despite a tremendously costly social policy which entailed massive civil disobedience and a war by official America against many of its own citizens, the anticipated benefits of Prohibition did not materialize, while even health consequences due to drinking may have worsened in toto.
Thornton has summarized: “Although consumption of alcohol fell at the beginning of Prohibition, it subsequently increased. Alcohol became more dangerous to consume; crime increased and became ‘organized’; the court and prison systems were stretched to the breaking point; and corruption of public officials was rampant. No measurable gains were made in productivity or reduced absenteeism. Prohibition removed a significant source of tax revenue and greatly increased government spending. It led many drinkers to switch to opium, marijuana, patent medicines, cocaine, and other dangerous substances that they would have been unlikely to encounter in the absence of Prohibition.”
Thornton, Mark. (1991). Economics of prohibition. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press.
Nadelmann, Ethan A. (1989, December 1). Letters and response. Science, 246, 1102-1105.