On Jan. 17, 1920, one hundred years ago, America officially went dry.
Prohibition, embodied in the U.S Constitution’s 18th amendment, banned the sale, manufacture and transportation of alcohol. Yet it remained legal to drink, and alcohol was widely available throughout Prohibition, which ended in 1933.
I am reminded of how easy it was to drink during Prohibition every time I go to the hotel in New Hampshire that hosted the Bretton Woods Conference, which created the modern international monetary system after World War II. The hotel, now known as the Omni Mount Washington Resort, boasts a basement speakeasy called The Cave that served illegal liquor during Prohibition.
The last time I was in The Cave I began wondering, given how prevalent Prohibition-era speakeasies appear to have been, what effect banning alcohol had on consumption rates.
Moreover, are we drinking any more today than we did before prohibition?
Consumption begins to drop
The Prohibition movement began in the early 1800s based on noble ideas such as boosting savings, reducing domestic violence and improving family life.
At the time, alcohol usage was soaring in the U.S. Some estimates by alcohol opponents put consumption at three times what it is today. Activists thought that prohibiting its sale would curb excess drinking. Their efforts were very effective.
But while Prohibition is often portrayed as a sharp change that happened with one last national call for drinks just before the stroke of midnight, thousands of towns throughout the country had gone dry well before that. More bans took effect during World War I in an effort to save grain.
So to consider the impact of Prohibition on drinking habits, it’s a good idea to start in the years leading up to it. And given that beer, wine and spirits all have different alcohol content, we’ll use the number of “standard” drinks a person consumes to make our comparison. A standard drink contains about 14 grams of pure alcohol. This is the amount of spirits in a 12 ounce beer, a five ounce glass of wine or a 1.5 ounce shot of hard liquor.
From 1900 until 1915 – five years before the 18th Amendment passed – the average adult drank about 2.5 gallons of pure alcohol a year, which is about 13 standard drinks per week. Consumption fell sharply by 1916, with the average falling to two gallons a year, or 10 drinks a week.
The Prohibition movement and the local dry laws that preceded it appeared to already be having an impact.
Tracking consumption gets a bit trickier after 1920.
Prohibition meant the federal government no longer had a way to measure how much alcohol people were consuming. So to get around the missing information, researchers have used data on arrests for drunkenness, deaths caused by cirrhosis of the liver, deaths by alcoholism and how many patients were admitted to hospitals for alcoholic psychosis. Put together, the numbers suggest alcohol consumption dropped sharply in 1920, falling to about one-third of what people drank before Prohibition.
Starting in 1921, however, alcohol consumption rebounded quickly and soon reached about two-thirds of pre-Prohibition levels. One likely reason is that the U.S. experienced a severe recession in 1920 and 1921. When the economy recovered in 1922 to start the roaring 20s people were more able to afford illegal liquor.
In the decades after Prohibition ended on Dec. 5, 1933, with the repeal of the 18th Amendment, consumption remained relatively subdued. But by the 1960s and ‘70s, Americans were swilling just as much alcohol as in the early 1900s.
Today Americans drink on average about 2.3 gallons of pure alcohol a year, which is about 12 standard drinks a week, about the same amount they drank before Prohibition.
The era of Prohibition left many legacies.
More negatively, some claim it created organized crime as violence soared and mobsters enriched themselves. It also meant states and the federal government, which relied heavily on excise taxes from liquor taxes to fund their budgets, turned to income taxes to help make up for the gap. And ultimately it did not result in a significant or lasting drop in alcohol consumption.
So, as an economist, I believe if you want to stop people from doing something injurious to their health, raising the price works better than a ban. That’s how the U.S. cut the share of adult smokers from 40% in the 1970s to 16% by 2018.
The 100th anniversary of Prohibition reminds us that bans rarely work.
[ You’re smart and curious about the world. So are The Conversation’s authors and editors. You can read us daily by subscribing to our newsletter. ]
Illinois Dem slams Blagojevich pardon: ‘Not based on facts and fairness’
On Tuesday President Donald Trump pardoned former Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D-IL), who went to prison after attempting to sell a Senate appointment and extorting a children's hospital.
Speaking to CNN's Wolf Blitzer on "The Situation Room," Illinois Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi slammed the president's actions.
"I think that in part, he's sending a message to folks like Michael Flynn and Roger Stone and others, which is that if you stay on the team, you keep silent about any other information that you know with regard to the president, then you might be rewarded as well, down the road."
Mediterranean diet boosts good bacteria — and curbs harmful ones
Switching in old age from a bland, unvaried diet to a Mediterranean mix of fresh veggies, fruits and fish restores a balance of intestinal bacteria linked to good health, researchers said Tuesday.
In a clinical trial with 612 volunteers aged 65 to 79 across five European countries, those who adopted a typical MedDiet for a year showed more "good" microbes linked to better brain function, and a net drop in gut flora thought to trigger inflammation and increased frailty.
The results held true regardless of age or weight, both of which influence the community of bacteria species -- numbering up to 1,000 -- that make-up the human microbiome, the scientists reported in the journal Gut.
‘Huge win’ for tech workers’ rights as Kickstarter employees vote to unionize
"To all tech and creative workers looking to fight for your rights, this is only just the beginning!"
Workers at the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter made history Tuesday when they voted to unionize, making them the first in the industry to do so in the latest grassroots victory for tech workers.
The 47-36 vote in favor of forming a union makes Kickstarter United the first union of white-collar, full-time workers in the tech sector, NBC News reported. Employees including designers, writers, engineers, and software developers, all voted in favor of forming the union.