“Prohibition was quite successful,” argues Rev. Mark H. Green, head of the Christian Action League of North Carolina. Was prohibition really a success? And by what measure could Prohibition be judged a success?
The reverend states as fact that Prohibition reduced alcohol consumption. But that’s a very debatable statement. Per capita consumption of alcohol increased during Prohibition, according to the federal Wickersham Commission. In fact, it increased over 500% between 1921 and 1929, according to a study published by Columbia University Press.
It’s also important to point out that per capita consumption dropped dramatically between 1910 and the beginning 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 began. The Noble Experiment drove drinking underground to speakeasies and other uncontrolled places.
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 drinking of often unsafe bootleg alcohol. It often contained poisonous lead compounds, 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 growth 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 a year. Crime paid very well. And it led to the corruption of the entire administrations, including the police departments, across the country.
The reverend then argues that denying adults age 18-20 the right to drink has reduced alcohol problems. Not so. Raising the drinking age may have led to a lower rate of alcohol related traffic deaths among those 19-20. But it merely pushed those deaths to drivers 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. Like the speakeasies of Prohibition, it encourages binge drinking.
And there’s yet another problem. Colleges are not able to teach responsible drinking to their adult students who choose to drink. Instead, they must take the role of enforcer of a very unpopular law.
That law is inconsistent with American history and culture. Alcohol has always been a part of American college life. For example, a brewery was one of Harvard College’s first building projects. That’s because it wanted to ensure a steady supply of fresh beer to students.
Was Prohibition Really a Success?
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. In these groups education about alcohol starts early and starts in the home.
Young people are taught that if they drink, they must do so moderately and responsibly. Indeed, federal research shows something highly relevant. Those under age who drink with their parents are less likely to drink as often or to abuse alcohol.
Imagine if we handled driving education the way we do drinking “education.” We would tell young people that driving is dangerous. It kills tens of thousands of people each year. That driving requires physical skill, emotional maturity, and knowing rules of the road. It also requires practical driving experience.
We would deny them the chance 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. We would tell them that it’s safer to take public transportation. But if they insist on driving, they should to be careful and try to avoid any crashes.
But that’s exactly what we do with alcohol education. Then were’re surprised that we don’t get better results. Therefore, 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 fail and to create great problems, then it was clearly a resounding success.
- Behr, E. Prohibition. Thirteen Years that Changed Us.
- Dunn, J. Prohibition. (Am Hist) (Juv)
- Nishi, D. Prohibition. (History Firsthand)
- Hintz, M. Farewell, John Barleycorn. Prohibition in the US. (Juv)
- Okrent, D. Last Call. The Rise and Fall of Prohibition.
- Peck, G. The Prohibition Hangover.
- Slavicek, L. The Prohibition Era.
- Burns, K., et al. Prohibition. (DVD)
- Slightly edited from guest editorial by your host in the Durham Herald-Sun.