Social Control of Deviant Drinking

Prohibition: Pros and Cons

The U.S. Temperance Movement

Earlier in the course, we discussed Joseph Gusfield's analysis of the various forms of conflict that motivated the social movement to ban alcohol in the United States. This movement, which began with the goal of encouraging temperance or moderation in drinking, was eventually transformed into a mission of "zero tolerance"--complete prohibition of the sale of alcohol. As Gusfield argued, the driving force behind prohibitionists' symbolic crusade against "demon rum" was deep and intensifying conflict between Protestants vs. Catholics, immigrants vs. "native" Americans, and rural vs. urban interest groups.

A documentary that recently appeared on PBS, Prohibition, directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, provides a fascinating and informative history of this social movement, its success in the passage of the 18th Amendment, and some of the unintended consequences that have given the term "prohibition" a bad name. A good place to become acquainted with the origins and influential interest groups in the temperance movement is the following page on the PBS Prohibition website (click to open new page):

Roots of Prohibition

Benefits of Prohibition

Although a good deal has been written about the negative "lessons" of the Prohibition era in the U.S., there were some positive consequences of the 18th Amendment and the subsequent restrictions on alcohol sales from 1920 to 1933. The following graphic from Dean R. Gerstein's analysis of "Alcohol Use and Consequences" of Prohibition illustrates several improvements in alcohol-related problems that resulted at least in part from this major change in public policy. Using several published sources for his evidence, Gerstein shows that deaths due to liver cirrhosis dropped substantially immediately before (when many states had already outlawed alcohol) and during Prohibition. Because the vast majority of cirrhosis deaths are attributable to heavy, chronic alcohol use, the restrictions on alcohol sales seem to have had some positive effect on this important cause of mortality. Similarly, deaths ascribed to "alcoholism" also appear to have undergone a temporary drop during the early stages of Prohibition. Following the repeal of Prohibition in the mid-1930s, liver cirrhosis rates again began to increase along with alcohol consumption.

Prohibition and Alcohol Consumption

Problems with Prohibition 

On the other hand, the "Great Experiment" of national prohibition is generally regarded as a failed effort to eliminate alcohol problems through a "zero-tolerance" strategy. Aside from the obvious fact that millions of Americans flouted the law and continued to consume alcohol, the "experiment" resulted in a variety of serious, long-term conquences that were neither intended nor expected by well-meaning prohibitionists. The following page from the PBS Prohibition website highlights the collateral damage that can result from efforts to impose a common moral standard on a diverse and divided population.

Unintended Consequences

Despite the short-comings and unintended negative consequences of alcohol prohibition, the zero-tolerance approach to social control continues to enjoy widespread popular and governmental support in U.S. policies generally know as the "War on Drugs." What lessons did we learn from Prohibition during 1920-1933 that can be applied to contemporary drug-control policies? The final link on this page takes you to a slide presentation that outlines a number of "problems with prohibition," both in the 1920s and in the U.S. today.

Problems with Prohibition
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