HAMS: Harm Reduction for Alcohol

Appendix I: Alcohol Prohibition and Consumption

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The National Institute of Health publishes figures on the legal consumption of alcohol per capita from 1850 to the present which are summarized in Appendix I Figure 1 (raw data is given in the excel spreadsheet ).

Sometimes attempts have been made to convince people that alcohol prohibition was effective by pointing to the fact that per capita legal alcohol consumption was much lower in the years immediately after prohibition was lifted than it had been in the years before or after. However such arguments are specious as they ignore numerous highly relevant historical facts.

Many states passed statewide prohibition laws and became dry long before the institution of National Prohibition in January 1920. The first state to become and remain dry until the advent of National Prohibition was Maine in 1851. By 1907 Kansas, Maine, North Dakota, Georgia, Oklahoma, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee, and West Virginia were dry. However, until 1913 it remained perfectly legal to sell alcohol through the mail order and residents of dry states could legally obtain liquor this way. So it is difficult so say if the state level prohibition laws had any significant effect on increasing the production of illegal liquor until the passage of the Webb-Kenyon Interstate Liquor Act in 1913. The NIH data shows a whopping 2.56 gallons per capita legally consumed in the years 1911-1915--a level of consumption which reached again until the 1970s.

We see a sharp drop to 1.96 gallons per capita consumed during the years of 1916-1919, however one is forced to speculate that production and sale of illegal alcohol may well have made up for the loss of legal sales due to the Interstate Liquor Act.

We know that bootlegging and rumrunning were rampant during the prohibition years and that there is no realistic means of even estimating illegal liquor sales during this period. We do know that drinking was ubiquitous and rampant.

Moreover, the repeal of National Prohibition in 1934 did not put an end to illegal liquor sales which continued to plague state and federal law enforcement agencies for many years thereafter. Several states retained prohibition laws even after repeal, with the last state--Mississippi--only repealing its state prohibition law in 1966. Evasion of state and federal taxation also remained a strong motivator for the illegal liquor trade, and thanks to prohibition the means for manufacture, transport and sale were already in place.

The history of traffic in illegal liquor forces us to conclude that the NIH data is very incomplete for the period from around 1915 to 1940--there is no convincing data that total per capita consumption of alcohol either dropped during prohibition or that it was lower in the early post repeal years than it had been before the advent of prohibition. We simply do not know.

The term bootlegging comes to us from the Civil War when Federal tax laws were placed on alcohol and illicit booze was smuggled in the legs of boots.


Apparent per capita ethanol consumption for the United States, 1850�2005. (Gallons of ethanol, based on population age 15 and older prior to 1970 and on population age 14 and other thereafter).

Prohibition As A Reform by Joan Rapczynski Florence Zywocinski


Prohibition Law


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