Alcohol Abuse: Who’s to Blame?

The answer to the question of who’s to blame for alcohol abuse is important because it suggests how to reduce such abuse.

Prohibition leader Wayne Wheeler had an uncle who repeatedly got himself drunk at local saloons. Wheeler tellingly observed “I could never understand why the saloons were allowed to make him drunk” (emphasis added). 1

Similarly, Neal Dow, an early champion of prohibition, wrote that

My father once owned an old-fashioned silver watch, too large to be conveniently carried, which he often hung on a hook on the wall. One day, when a little fellow, I climbed into a chair to get at the watch, tipped the chair over, pulled the watch down, which, falling with me to the floor, was broken. When reproved for meddling with the timepiece, I urged upon my father that the fault was altogether with those who had left the watch within my reach. Years afterward, in relating the incident, my father would laughingly say that he had heard me make my argument for Prohibition, so far as it bore upon the removal of temptation, before I was six years old. 2

The typical prohibitionist response to alcohol abuse is to blame those who supply the wants of those who do the abusing. This perspective can be seen today in the neo-prohibitionist call for “environmental management” to reduce the availability of alcohol beverages to the public.

However, the Prohibition experience strongly suggests that the prohibitionists misplaced the blame. During National Prohibition, there was absolutely no alcohol advertising of any type, alcohol beverages were illegal to purchase or transport, drinking bootleg alcohol was dangerous to life and health, all drinking establishments were illegal, and alcohol consumers could be arrested and imprisoned. Alcohol producers were not pushing people to drink. To the contrary, consumers had to seek out their supplies of the illegal beverages, give secret passwords, and endanger themselves. And drinking flourished. simply because of consumer demand.

Even when alcohol is legal and producers can promote their products, the consumer is still king. Research clearly demonstrates that alcohol advertising today can’t increase consumption or induce non-drinkers to begin drinking. If successful, such advertising can only increase an advertiser’s share of the market, which it obtains at the expense of its competitors, who lose market share.

So it appears that alcohol abuse is more effectively reduced through changing the attitudes and behaviors of consumers than changing the actions of those who satisfy consumer demand.

As a Chinese sage observed thousands of years ago, the fault is not in the alcohol but in the drinker.


  • 1. Kobler, John A. Ardent Spirits: the Rise and Fall of Prohibition. New York: Putnam’s Sons, 1973, p. 181.
  • 2. Burns, Eric. The Spirits of America: A Social History of Alcohol. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2004, p 154.


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