Was Prohibition Really a Success?

“Prohibition was quite successful,” argues Rev. Mark H. Green, head of the Christian Action League of North Carolina. But specifically by what measure or measures could Prohibition be judged a success?

The reverend states as fact that Prohibition reduced alcohol consumption. However, that is a very controversial assertion. Per capita consumption of alcohol increased during Prohibition, according to the federal Wickersham Commission. More specifically, it increased over 500% between 1921 and 1929, according to a study published by Columbia University Press. It’s important to point out that per capita consumption dropped dramatically between 1910 and the imposition of Prohibition in 1920. So Prohibition reversed a downward trend in alcohol consumption.

The reverend also fails to note the change in the way people drank after Prohibition was implemented. The Noble Experiment drove drinking underground to speakeasies and other uncontrolled locations. Under Prohibition, people drank less often but much more heavily and quickly when they did drink. People didn’t go to an illegal speakeasy to enjoy a leisurely drink with their meal. Prohibition clearly lead to dangerous binge drinking.

Prohibition promoted public health? Not so. Prohibition lead to the consumption of often unsafe bootleg alcohol containing poisonous lead compounds, embalming fluid, creosote, poisonous methyl alcohol, and other dangerous substances. Hundreds of thousands of people became ill, suffered paralysis, lost their sight, or died from illegal alcohol.

Prohibition reduced crime? Not so. To the contrary, it stimulated the rapid development of organized crime. “Prohibition is a business.” observed the notorious Al Capone. “All I do is supply a public demand.” And indeed he did. After violently disposing of his competitors, Capone earned 60 million untaxed dollars each year. That was at a time when the typical industrial worker earned less than one thousand dollars annually. Crime paid very well. And it led to the corruption of the entire administrations, including the police departments, of cities across the country.

The reverend then argues that denying adults age 18-20 the right to drink (that is, imposing Prohibition on adults of specific ages) has reduced alcohol problems. Not so. For example, raising the drinking age to 21 was associated with a lower rate of alcohol-related traffic fatalities among those 19-20. However, it merely postponed those fatalities, which subsequently increased among persons age 21-24.

The reverend refers to Dr. John McCardell, President Emeritus of Middlebury College. That educational leader has pointed out some of the many problems caused by raising the drinking age. A major such problem is that student drinking is driven underground, where, like the speakeasies of Prohibition, it encourages binge drinking. Simultaneously, colleges are no longer able to teach responsible drinking behavior among their adult students who choose to drink. Instead, they must take the role of enforcer of a very unpopular law that’s inconsistent with American history and culture. And alcohol has always been a part of American college life. A brewery was one of Harvard College’s first building projects because it wanted to ensure a steady supply of fresh beer to the student dining hall.

The reverend tries unsuccessfully to debunk the fact that moderate attitudes and laws encourage moderation. Many groups around the world have learned how to consume alcohol widely with few problems. Those familiar to most Americans include Italians, Jews, Greeks, Portuguese and Spaniards.

The success of such groups has three parts:

  1. beliefs about the substance of alcohol,
  2. the act of drinking, and
  3. education about drinking.

In these successful groups:

  • The substance of alcohol is seen as neutral. It is neither a terrible poison nor is it a magic substance that can transform people into what they would like to be.
  • The act of drinking is seen as natural and normal. Drinking and abstention are seen as equally acceptable. While there is little or no social pressure to drink, there is absolutely no tolerance for abusive drinking.
  • Education about alcohol starts early and starts in the home. Young people are taught -- through their parents' good example and under their supervision -- that if they drink, they must do so moderately and responsibly. Indeed, federally-sponsored research has found that those who drink with their parents are less likely to drink as often or to abuse alcohol than are others.

Imagine if we handled driving education the way we do drinking “education.” We would tell young people that driving is dangerous and kills tens of thousands of people each year, that driving requires physical skill, emotional maturity, knowledge of rules of the road, and practical driving experience. We would deny them the opportunity to obtain a driver learner’s permit, to practice driving, and to become skilled and safe drivers. Then, on their 21st birthday, we would hand them car keys and tell them that it’s safer to take public transportation but if they must drive, to be careful and try to avoid accidents.

But that’s exactly what we do with alcohol education and are surprised that we don’t get better results. We need to issue drinking learner permits, under strict guidelines, to promote responsible drinking behaviors among adults age 18-20.

If the goal of Prohibition was to increase heavy episodic (binge) drinking, increase the consumption of dangerous illegal alcohol, reduce public health, foster violent and powerful organized crime, promote political corruption and encourage widespread disrespect for the law, then it was clearly a resounding success.


Slightly edited from guest editorial published in the Durham Herald-Sun.

Filed Under: Prohibition