Alcohol abuse: who’s to blame? The answer to the question of who’s to blame for alcohol abuse is important. That’s 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 is to blame those who supply the wants of those who do the abusing. Today neo-prohibitionists call for “environmental management.” They want 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. It was illegal to sell or transport alcoholic beverages. All drinking establishments were illegal. Drinking bootleg (illegal) alcohol was dangerous to life and health.
Alcohol producers were not pushing people to drink. To the contrary, consumers had to seek out their supplies of the illegal beverages. At speakeasies (blind pigs, etc.) they had to give secret passwords and endanger themselves. Yet drinking flourished. Simply because of consumer demand.
Consumer is King
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. But it obtains that 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. Not through 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.
Resources for Alcohol Abuse: Who’s to Blame?
Burns, K., et al. Prohibition. DVD video. Culver City: PBS, 2011.
Nishi, D. Prohibition. San Diego: Greenhaven, 2004.
Hintz, M. Farewell, John Barleycorn: Prohibition in the US.
Minneapolis: Lerner, 1996. Juvenile readership.
Orr, T. Prohibition. San Diego: Blackbirch, 2004. Bio sketches of major figures. Elemen and jr high.
Peck, G. The Prohibition Hangover. Alcohol in America from Demon Rum to Cult Cabernet. New Brunswick: Rutgers U Press, 2009.
Sinclair, A. Prohibition. London: Four Square, 1965.
- Hanson, D. Wayne Bidwell Wheeler. Am Nat Bio. NY: Oxford U. Press, 1999.
- Burns, E. The Spirits of America. A Social History of Alcohol. Philadelphia: Temple U Press, 2004.