Happy Repeal Day

Today is the seventy-eight anniversary of Repeal. I am re-posting something I wrote three years ago for the seventy-fifth anniversary. It was posted on my pre-wordpress blog so I am not sure how many people read it.

Prohibition happened because of deep ambivalence in American society over the use and abuse of alcohol. In 1920 the solution to these problems appeared to be the cessation of the production, distribution, and sale of alcohol. Thirteen years later Americans decided they had been wrong and allowed, once again, alcohol to be legally made and sold.

Repeal represented a turning point in American views of social behavior and habits. Since 1933 Prohibition has served as a negative reference point for any attempts to regulate or control problematic or unhealthy behavior. Reformers seeking legalization of other psychoactive substances such as marijuana use the nation’s experience with Prohibition to underscore the lack of wisdom in prohibiting other drugs.

Prohibition and Repeal did not eradicate our nation’s ambivalence about alcohol. As a country we are not alone in this ambivalence. Most modern states have a similarly complicated relationship with alcoholic beverages. Most governments receive some revenue benefits from taxing liquor while they must also deal with the health, safety, and public disorder problems that result from the misuse of alcohol.

From the liquor industry’s stand point the history of Prohibition and Repeal is a mixed blessing. They are always able to refer to Prohibition as the undesired end point of any attempts to increase regulation of the industry. They have been able to resume their role as financial partners in the federal government, an activity that continues to give them respectability. However they are ever vigilant in resisting any further sacrifices in the form of increased taxes. They are obviously aware, both from their own experiences as well as the experiences of the tobacco industry, that they are not invulnerable to another prohibition.

American responses to alcohol use and abuse have come in waves or cycles. From 1933 until the early 1970s American society increasingly saw alcohol consumption as a normal part of middle class social life. The low consumption rates that persisted until baby boomers became old enough to drink may have encouraged this benign view of liquor. The liquor industry as well as the medical field and academics all participated in the individualization and medicalization of alcohol problems.

In the 1970s alcohol consumption levels rose and a more public health approach to alcohol problems emerged. We are still living in this era. Public health advocates along with neo-prohibitionists had several successes including warning labels, the increase in the minimum drinking age, and a tax increase for beer. However they have not really moved forward in their attempts to restrict television advertising and drunk driving rates have not decreased for several years.

What remains to be seen is whether the pendulum will swing more severely one way or the other? Will bad economic times lead to increased or decreased drinking? Globally as the world’s population ages there seems to be a decrease in drinking. Less drinking usually leads to less negative consequences for society which in turn can lead to looser attitudes about drinking. However, at least in America, the baby boomlet could certainly impact consumption levels which might swing the pendulum towards stricter regulations and greater societal concern. The liquor industry is much better organized to withstand a regulatory or prohibitory onslaught than they were when Prohibition started.


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One Response to Happy Repeal Day

  1. This “law” of drug prohibition captures what happened during alcohol prohibition. The major effect of the Eighteenth Amendment was to dramatically reduce beer drinking (and therefore total alcohol consumption). At the same time, prohibition increased consumption of hard liquor (especially among the middle class). The fashionableness of the martini and other mixed drinks among the middle class is in part a historical legacy of prohibition, when criminalization made hard liquor the most available form of beverage alcohol.

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