Prohibition and Heavy Drinking

It’s another great image that has set Professor on his quest. A city street crammed with revelers, staggering from speakeasy to speakeasy, policemen on the beat looking the other way, and flappers dancing to the crazed jazz of the 1920s. During Prohibition, so the story goes, the rate of drinking among the American population went up, despite the demon liquor being outlawed.

After the manufacture, sale, and consumption of alcoholic beverages was banned in a fit of morality and temperance in 1920. The myth that is so repeatedly told is that Americans actually began to drink more, partly to say “up yours” to what they saw as Federal over-reach. In order for this story to have been true, people who had consumed alcohol before the ban would have had to continue drinking (and probably drink more), and, in all likelihood many people who had abstained from alcohol would have had to start drinking.

It’s not true, though, folks. Scholars disagree over the numbers and statistics (and even over which statistics to use – rates of cirrhosis of the liver, rates of alcohol poisoning, arrest rates for drunkenness, and others), but they all agree that alcohol consumption declined during prohibition and that many alcohol-related illnesses decreased too.

Booze consumption went down dramatically in the immediate aftermath of passage of the 18th Amendment (prohibition) and even more because the Volstead Act which provided for enforcing the ban. Some studies at the time said it went down between 20-70%). (By the way, reading these studies is often confusing because some of them refer to a level of decrease, and sometimes they refer to a decrease to a certain percentage of pre-Prohibition levels. These are not the same things, of course. To make it easier, I will always refer to the level of decrease, not to the comparative level of pre-Prohibition consumption. Confused, kids?)

The best and most reliable contemporary and modern studies conclude that consumption fell 70% in the immediate aftermath of prohibition, but that it rose steadily (more or less) throughout the 1920s to equate to a decline of between 30-40% of pre-Prohibition levels. (The other way of saying this is that drinking went down to 30% of pre-Prohibition levels and rose gradually every year till it reached 70% of pre-Prohibition levels by the early 1930s.)

So Prohibition clearly reduced alcohol consumption, even if it was only a 30% decrease by the early 1930s.

The myth of rising consumption, however, was generated because of the problems that Prohibition caused. The first was that some people bought and made stills to distill their own booze. The second was the illegal importation of Canadian booze. The third was general bootlegging. The fourth was that it forced alcohol consumption to be done secretively and often quickly (which led to binge drinking, so public drunkenness seemed to be rampaging through the country). Finally, and most importantly, Prohibition gave a tremendous boost to organized crime (because finding booze illegally, transporting it, and selling it required immense networks of criminals). This led to an increase in the corruption of some public officials, from the lowly policeman on the beat, to the town/city mayor, to judges, and to higher-level politicians.

The myth is further bolstered because, even though Prohibition decreased drinking, it didn’t eliminate it (which was the main goal of prohibitionists). And it seemed as if other societal problems related to drinking got worse (drunkenness, crime, corruption) because they were more visible. And many people thought it led to a general disrespect for the law. So in many ways it was a failures.

But as a public health measure, it was a success. Even though it could only get drinking down by, at most, 30%, that was a big drop. And medical problems related to alcohol declined by roughly that amount. Why? Because, for the average person, alcohol became difficult to acquire. You couldn’t just walk down to the store and buy it. You had to know someone who knew someone, or you have to sneak to a speakeasy. That was too much of a pain in the neck for most people, especially those who didn’t live in cities.

So drink up, Buzzkillers, as long as you’re of age. And if other joy substances continue to be legalized, make sure to take it easy.