The motivation to remove alcohol from society often rests on four social pillars: firstly, to redirect household expenditure; secondly, to reduce crimes of drunkenness, assaults and domestic abuse; thirdly, to solve economic problems of productivity, absenteeism and work safety; and finally, to limit the cost of prisons, poorhouses, and hospitals. Investigating US history offers a picture of whether these goals were achieved and the consequences of this social experiment on the broader health of society.
The national objective was to eliminate the availability and consumption of alcohol. In 1920, the first year of Prohibition, liquor consumption fell by 35 per cent. However, by 1927 illicit liquor expenditure had jumped by 36 per cent compared with 1917. By 1928, under Prohibition, consumption continued to climb to 71 per cent of pre-Prohibition levels, with per-capita consumption of spirits doubling from 1918 to 1930. Outlawed production and smuggling turned many adult citizens into felons for possession and enjoying a drink. Abstainers remained at 42 per cent of the population, a rate that did not change until World War II, declining to 39 per cent. The effect of Prohibition shifted consumption from mildly intoxicating liquors to potent distilled spirits, as bulky beer and wine were vulnerable to detection and more costly to transport and store.
The per-capita murder rate and assaults (by firearm) increased by 70 per cent during the 1920s. In major cities, murders leapt by 78 per cent, with homicide rates falling after the repeal of Prohibition. Drunk and disorderly conduct increased by 41 per cent, and driving under the influence spiked by 81 per cent. Between 1920 to 1933, incarceration rates in federal penitentiaries swelled more than fourfold, resulting in a significant expansion in national prison construction. The leading alcoholic killer, cirrhosis of the liver, fell by 40 per cent during the 1920s, replaced by alcohol poisoning and a rise in suicide during the Prohibition years. Both declined after repeal. In 1925, over 4,500 people died from alcohol poisoning, a fourfold increase since 1920. A conspicuous example was Hub Products of Boston, alleged to have poisoned over 50,000 people in 1930, with many victims succumbing to paralysis, including 100 fatalities.
Sending liquor underground meant no industry standards or government supervision to protect the population from adulteration and contamination. With no retail licensing controls, access to alcohol became more porous. New York City was estimated to have up to 15,000 speakeasies in 1926, a threefold increase on licensed establishments eight years earlier.
The loss of personal liberty had unforeseen consequences impacting beyond the forfeiture of excise taxes and customs duties on liquor, stripping an estimated USD$7 to $10 billion from the Federal Treasury over the 13 years of Prohibition, while increasing personal income tax rates. An additional burden was the cost of enforcement, estimated at half a billion US dollars in establishing a permanent federal force, supported by a bloated bureaucracy to administrate compliance, not including policing, courts and imprisonments by local jurisdictions. Closing of distilleries and their ilk led to financial stress for farmers, cooperages, transporters, glass makers, retail, and hospitality.
In turn, illicit substances such as cocaine, heroin, and opium moved to mainstream consumption. European newspapers described America as the ‘Land of Narcotics’, with the Government claiming 1.5 million citizens were addicted to cocaine and opium in 1925. The supply of illicit goods led local gangs and crime families to organise interstate and national crime syndicates. Their nefarious tentacles corrupted public officials entrusted with regulating Prohibition laws: politicians, courts, police and federal workers.
Alcohol is a drug; when abused, it can bring peril to civil society. However, the vast majority of consumers drink alcohol in moderation. Denying citizens the right to a recreational habit is coeval to society unleashing more dangerous and destructive forces.