Temperance Movement Today in US: Neo-Prohibitionism

Most of the country recognized prohibition as a national disaster in 1933. The popular vote against it was 74%. But millions of people continued to support prohibition (PRO. The temperance (T) movement today is alive and well. And it continues to support anti-alcohol sentiments.


I.   Temperance after Repeal

II.  Movement Bides Its Time

III. New Temperance Movement

IV.  Temperance Movement Today

V.    Summary

Temperance Movement Today

I. Temperance after Repeal

The neo-prohibition movement is strong and growing. Almost one in five US adults today favors prohibiting alcohol drinking by anyone. Of any age. For any reason. Not even National Prohibition made the consumption of alcohol illegal.

A Look Back

PRO had been a major legacy of World War I.1 With war raging in Europe, T leaders again hoped to use the crisis. One said “the full force of dry pressure would once again be brought to bear on Congress” if we entered the war. This would be “to get as much PRO as…possible.”2 World War I had been a major impetus for PRO. Therefore, a T journal predicted promising times ahead.3

World War II

After the attack at Pearl Harbor in 1941, T leaders wanted PRO on all military bases. One dry leader said, “I would rather have a sober son in a concentration camp in Germany than in a service camp in America if that son should become the victim of the drink habit.”4

Henry L. Stimson

But the Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, insisted  that “T cannot be attained by PRO.” He supported the sale of beer and light wine on military bases. And he believed that this policy had “caused a degree of T among Army personnel which is not approachable in civil communities now.” It also encouraged soldiers “to remain on the reservation (their home) and enjoy refreshment under conditions conducive of T.”5

And Army Major Merrill Moore called for policies to encourage moderation among soldiers who chose to drink. He said that “Not alcohol, but the intemperate use of alcohol, is the problem in the Army as well as in civilian life.”6  The Office of War Information pointed out that bootleggers could not be regulated whereas legal dispensers could.7

Beer for Morale

temperance movement todayMilitary leaders considered beer good for morale. Thus, it was good the war effort. Therefore, brewers were required to allocate 15% of their production of beer for the armed forces.

Also, local draft boards could grant deferments to brewery workers who were highly skilled. The Teamsters were ordered to end a strike against Minneapolis breweries because beer was essential to the war effort. Near the end of the war, the army made plans to operate recaptured French breweries. That would ensure beer for the troops.8

The Stars and Stripes

An editorial in the Army newspaper, The Stars and Stripes, expressed alarm at temperance activities back home.

Taking advantage of wartime conditions and restrictions, the new PRO group is working night and day. It’s for legislation which will give America PRO in fact if not in name. We can remember the days of prohibition. Moonshine whiskey made quick fortunes for bootleggers, crooked politicians and dishonest police officials. As a result we claim we know what we want in the way of liquor legislation. We feel those at home should wait until we return before initiating further legislation on liquor control.9


Perhaps in the belief that the end justifies the means, T leaders frequently made clearly false statements. For example, a leading dry (T or PRO) editor wrote this. “The liquor interests use more than 1,250,000 tons of sugar every year. That is more than the one-half pound ration per week for every man, woman and child in the United States.”10 In fact, no sugar is used in producing distilled spirits (liquor)

temperance movement todaySimilarly, the president of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU)  wrote this. “Total consumption of legal and illicit liquor in the fiscal year ended June 30, 1941, was approximately 2,017,835,015 gallons.”11 That would have been over 15 gallons for every man, woman, and child in a country. Also the country had a very large proportion of abstainers.

Dry Arguments

Dry leaders insisted that Congress prohibit the production of alcohol for at least the length of the war. They argued that intoxication caused the disaster at Pearl Harbor. That it wasted precious raw materials. That it reduced efficiency through excessive absenteeism. And that it would lead to “loose lips” among those with military secrets. But Congress would not be swayed this time.12  

II. Temperance Movement Bides Its Time

Writing shortly after World War II, legal scholar Raldolph Childs made a careful analysis. According to national surveys, “About one-third of the people of the United States favor national PRO.” He explained the situation.

The PRO forces are well organized and adequately financed. They carry on persistent propaganda against the sale and use of alcoholic beverages. Their long-range plan is, first, to dry up local communities by local option elections. Second, when feasible, to bring about state PRO. And, third, in the future, to restore national PRO.13

Twenty-first Amendment

The 21st Amendment  repealed National PRO.  It contains two short but important sentences.

Section 1: The eighteenth article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed.

Section 2: The transportation or importation into any State, Territory, or Possession of the United States for delivery or use therein of intoxicating liquors, in violation of the laws thereof, is hereby prohibited.

The first section one made it again legal to import, produce, and sell beverage alcohol. The second section gave the states authority to regulate these beverages. The federal government did, however, retain the authority to tax alcohol. And it soon asserted regulatory authority at the national level.

The government first regulated alcohol largely through the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. It was part of the Department of the Treasury. The Bureau’s functions included issuing business permits to importers, warehouses, manufacturers, and wholesalers. It also interdicted illicit alcohol. And it regulated labeling and advertising of alcohol.14 The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) now performs those functions.


Upon repeal of national PRO, 18 states continued PRO at the state level. The last state, Mississippi, finally dropped it in 1966. Almost two-thirds of all states adopted some form of local option. That enabled residents in political subdivisions to vote for or against local PRO. Therefore, despite the repeal of PRO at the national level, 38% of the nation’s population still lived under PRO.15

Monopoly System

Currently, about one-third of all states have the control or state monopoly system. That is, in which state government operates alcohol sales. The rest of the states use the license system. In these, the state licenses and regulates all wholesalers and retailers

This fact is obvious.

The confusion and warped attitudes engendered by this long and bitter struggle [over PRO] have not disappeared. National PRO is dead, but the movement is still with us under different names. The fifty states have varied and even conflicting laws. For example, in one state food must be served in the same place as liquor, while in an adjoining state not one but two walls must separate food from liquor. A few counties in local-option states are legally dry. Attitudes toward law and authority still suffer as an aftermath. Drinking and drunkenness are still equated by some, with moralistic implications ….16

Minimum Legal Drinking Age

temperance movement todayDuring the Vietnam war, increased political pressure arose to lower the minimum legal drinking age. People argued that if soldiers were old enough to go to war, then they were old enough to buy and drink alcohol. This led to the lowering of the drinking age in many states.17

With the passage of time, there were more concerns over problems related to the abuse of alcohol. Many people feared that the lower legal drinking ages caused an increase in auto crashes and deaths.

These increases may have resulted from greater use of cars or other factors. But they were blamed on the lower drinking ages. In politics, it is the perception of reality (rather than reality) that drives laws.18 And these perceptions help support the temperance movement today.

III. A New Temperance Movement

The creation of numerous federal, state, and non-profit alcohol abuse agencies has been beneficial in many ways.

But it has also “engendered bureaucratic incentive for convincing the people and members of Congress (who appropriate funds) of the perils and dangers of contemporary alcohol problems.”19

The welfare and survival of the alcohol agencies depends largely on deception. That is, in promoting the belief that alcohol problems are enormous and growing. And also that they are a serious burden on the economy.

Alcohol-Related Traffic Deaths

The alcohol-related traffic death rate is highly inaccurate. It includes all traffic deaths involving anyone who has consumed any alcohol. Or is believed to have consumed any alcohol. But the proportion of drivers in fatal crashes known to have been intoxicated is about 15%. This is based on actual traffic accident reports of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration  (NHTSA).

Similarly, estimates are made of the number of auto crashes that might involve alcohol in any way. But they are often presented as the number of crashes that are actually caused by drunk drivers.20

This, in spite of estimates that “about one half of the fatal road crashes involving a drunk driver would have occurred even if all drivers had a zero blood alcohol level.”21 Of course, this supports the temperance movement today.

Costs of Alcohol Abuse

Alcohol agencies also often distort the costs of alcohol abuse.  They do this in many ways. By basing estimates on questionable assumptions. Confusing correlation with causality. Looking only at costs while ignoring the economic benefits of alcohol. And by not using sound accounting principles.22

Drinking Problems

Estimates of drinking problems are also distorted. For example, estimates are made of the number of people who are likely ever to experience a problem. But agencies sometimes report these estimates as the actual number of problem drinkers!23

The motives of alcohol agencies? Perhaps one is an attempt to justify the existence of their jobs. Another is to expand bureaucratic budgets and power. Again, this supports the T movement today.

Anti-alcohol groups want to reduce alcohol drinking greatly. As a critic wrote, “The slogan for the new T is, regarding alcohol, ‘less is better.'”24 But lower is never low enough.

IV. Temperance Movement Today

This is clear.

In contemporary America, both the tactics and the tone of T sentiment have changed appreciably from the 1800s. Inebriety, licentiousness, moral depravity and sin have all but vanished from the vocabulary. The new contender for the status of moral purity would seem to be health. (Although ill-health has not yet achieved equivalence with religious fundamentalists’ conceptions of sin.) Today, rallying cries once structured in terms of social order, home and basic decency are now framed in terms of health promotion and disease prevention.25

Never Died

The T movement never really died. It was relatively dormant for several decades after World War II. But it has re-emerged with a new identity and modified ideology. Common names are “Neo-prohibition,”26 “new temperance,”27 “the new Sobriety,”28 “new Victorianism,”29 and “new paternalism.”30

The renewed T movement today assumes that individuals can’t make appropriate lifestyle choices. Therefore, “to protect people from themselves or to protect society, the state should pass legislation that enforces restrictions likely [in the belief of the reformers] to promote health by taking away the individual’s personal choice.”31 This, although alcohol laws in the country were already among the most stringent in the world. And it was before the new T movement today had impacted laws.32


Neo-prohibitionists tend to assume these things.

    • The substance of alcohol is, in itself, the cause of drinking problems.
    • The availability of alcohol leads people to drink.
    • The amount of alcohol consumed determines the extent of drinking problems. They don’t consider how fast it’s consumed, the purpose for which it is consumed, the social environment, etc.
    • Both alcohol education and policy should focus on the problems too much drinking can cause. They should promote abstinence.

These beliefs lead to the call for such measures as these.

    • Increasing taxes on alcohol.
    • Limiting or reducing the number of sales outlets.
    • Limiting the alcohol content (proof) of drinks.
    • Prohibiting or censoring alcohol ads.
    • Requiring warning messages with all alcohol ads.
    • Expanding the warning labels on all alcohol beverage containers.
    • Expanding the display of warning signs were alcohol is sold.
    • Limiting the days or hours when alcohol can be sold or served.
    • Increasing server liability.
    • Decreasing the legal blood alcohol concentration (BAC).
    • Ending the tax deductibility of alcohol as a business expense.

Neo-Prohibitionists tend to place primary responsibility on the cultural environment rather than the drinker for alcohol abuse.

V. Summary

Alcohol has been part of American life since the start of the colonies. European settlers considered alcohol the “good gift of God.” So they thought it should be used and enjoyed in moderation. And also by young and old alike. But its abuse was not tolerated. It was seen as “from the Devil.” Both formal and informal controls enforced moderation. That was the typical pattern of consumption.

Revolutionary War

The Revolutionary War brought about great social changes. That included reduced control over alcohol abuse. Drunkenness increased. And that was at the very time an industrializing economy required a reliable work force. Industrialization, urbanization, and other changes caused many problems. Many people blamed these problems on the new problem of frequent drunkenness.

As a result, a movement arose to encourage the moderate or temperate use of alcohol. But as time passed, most T groups began to insist on prohibition. Hence, T came to mean PRO. So the good gift of God became the evil Demon Rum.

Civil War

After the Civil War (1861-1865), Protestant churches increasingly began to view PRO as a religious issue. For this reason, they fought for T as a holy crusade against sin.

Many women’s groups joined with the churches in their crusade. They considered alcohol a defiler of women and destroyer of families and home life. So the WCTU began a successful campaign to mandate anti-alcohol education throughout all US public schools.

They called it Scientific Temperance Instruction. But a prestigious body of scientists and educators carefully examining the curriculum. It found that Scientific Temperance Instruction was neither scientific, temperate, or instructive. Yet the T instruction continued. Many people credited it with contributing to the rise of national PRO in 1920.

National Prohibition

National PRO began with the optimistic belief that it would be great for the country. It would reduce poverty, crime, violence and other social problems.

But the beautiful dream was not to be. Instead, PRO brought about a great increase in organized crime and bootleg alcohol. It caused widespread corruption of public officials, general disrespect for law, and an increase in binge drinking. Indeed, it was a disaster.


When they saw the problems caused by PRO, most people called for its repeal. They did so by a vote of three to one. But repeal did not stop support for PRO. Indeed, a substantial minority of the population maintained its strongly anti-alcohol sentiments.

Many tried to use World War II as an excuse to reimpose RRO to whatever degree possible. Its goal largely failed. Yet the T movement continued to promote its cause. It was basically dormant for several decades after WW II. But by 1980, temperance sentiment re-emerged in a new guise.

It’s called the new T, the neo-dry, the neo-prohibition, and similar terms. The T movement today has modified its ideology and political strategy. It’s now neo-prohibitionism.

temperance movement todayMore surprising is the support for actual prohibition. Today nearly one in five U.S. adults favors making drinking any alcohol illegal. That’s much more extreme than National Prohitition. Contrary to popular opinion, it did not prohibit drinking alcohol. Discover more at What did Prohibition Prohibit? It Wasn’t Drinking Alcohol.

VI. Resources

Popular Readings
    1. Clark, N. Deliver Us from Evil, pp. 122-129. Timberlake, J. Prohibition and the Progressive Movement, 173-176. Rubin, J. The Wet War. In: Blocker, J. Alcohol, Reform and Society,  p. 236.
    2. Childs, R. Making Repeal Work, p. 219.
    3. Rubin, p. 237.
    4. Rostow, E. Recent proposals for for federal legislation controlling the use of liquor. Q J Stud Alco, 3, p. 23. Rubin, p. 253.
    5. Rubin, pp. 238-239.
    6. Moore, M. The alcohol problem. Q J Stud Alco, p. 249.
    7. _____, p. 253.
    8. _____, p. 240.
    9. Childs, pp. 248-249.
    10. _____, p. 224.
    11. _____, p. 225.
    12. Rubin, pp. 245-246.
    13. Childs, p. 229.
    14. Mendelson, J., and Mello, N. The Diagnosis and Treatment of Alcoholism, pp. 93-94.
    15. _____, p. 94.

    16. Royce, J. Alcohol Problems and Alcoholism, p. 42.
    17. Lotterhos, J., et al. Intentionality of college students, Int J Addict, 23, 632.
    18. Hanson, D., et al. The influence of religion and culture on drinking behavior. Brit J Addict, 1999, p. 89.
    19. Mendelson and Mello, pp. 98-99.
    20. Zylman, R. Overemphasis on alcohol may be costing lives, Police Chief, 41, 64.
    21. Room, R. Alcoholism as a Course. In: von Wartburg, J.-P., et al. (Eds.) Currents in Alcohol Research, p. 12.
    22. Wiener, C. The Politics of Alcoholism, pp. 185-188. Ford, G. The Benefits of Moderate Drinking, pp. 134-165.
    23. Mulford, H. The Start of Alcoholism. In: Pattison, E., and Kaufman, E. Handbook of Alcoholism, pp. 453-454.
    24. Beauchamp, D. Alcohol Abuse Prevention. In: Holder, H. (Ed.) Advances in Substance Abuse, p. 62.
    25. Mendelson and Mello, p. 99.
    26. Pittman, D. Primary Prevention of Alcohol Abuse.
    27. Blocker, J. Am. Temperance Movements, p. 158.  Heath, D. The new T movement. Drugs Soc, 3, 143-168.
    28. Page, C. The new sobriety’s thirst for virtue. Wash Times, Jan 9, 1999.
    29. Heath, ibid.
    30. Gusfield, J. Alcohol Problems. In: von Wartburg, J.-P., et al. (Eds.) Currents in Alcohol Research, p. 7.
    31. Engs, R. Resurgence of a new clean living movement. J School Health, 61, 156. Good for the temperance movement today.
    32. Mosher, J. The History of Youthful-Drinking Laws. In: Wechsler, H. (Ed.) Minimum Drinking-Age Laws, pp. 11-38.
    • Know of any facts that should be added to the temperance movement today? If so, please contact hansondj [at sign] potsdam [dot] edu/. Thank you for your help!