Devil’s Advocate: Could Prohibition Make a Comeback?

As the US celebrates 90 years since the repeal of Prohibition, Robert Joseph looks back at the history of liquor bans globally and wonders if they are really a thing of the past.

Reading time: 4m

Robert Joseph - with horns
Robert Joseph - with horns

While there have been many efforts to reduce or outlaw alcohol distribution and consumption over the centuries, for most citizens of countries where wine is consumed today, Prohibition is a word that holds little or no direct resonance. But there are a few key exceptions.

Most obviously, there is the United States which – like Finland - lived with a near-total ban on alcohol between 1920 and 1933. Despite its federal repeal – through the 21st Amendment – states were given the freedom to make their own rules and prohibition was initially retained by 18 of them. Kansas dropped it in 1948 – having had a ban on alcohol since 1881 – while Mississippi was the last to do so in 1966.

Dry, wet and moist

Even so, the legacy lingers on in the shape of state alcohol monopolies and – in a number of states - ‘dry counties’. Arkansas’ 75 counties, for example, are a patchwork of ‘wet, ‘moist’ and 29 where alcohol distribution is effectively forbidden.

Today, there seems little public desire to see prohibition reintroduced, with a CNN ORC poll in 2014 revealing that only 18% thought alcohol should be illegal. By comparison, in the same study, 27% favoured a ban on tobacco. Revealingly, however, when asked which was the more dangerous, 12% said marijuana, compared to 73% who named alcohol.

The reference to marijuana, several years before its use for other than medical purposes was legal anywhere in the US, is relevant. Legalisation of the drug, like the recent ban on abortion, began at a state level. While it is unlikely that a US administration might decide to reintroduce any kind of prohibition for the nation as a whole in the near future, there is little to prevent restrictions being imposed locally, if the mood of the public or their elected officials were to turn in that direction. Given the increasing volume of anti-alcohol material coming from the WHO, and the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction's recent recommendation of a maximum consumption of two drinks per week, it would be interesting to see whether the percentage of prohibition supporters at a national or local level had risen from that 18% level nine years ago.

In the Indian constitution

India and the US are very different countries in many ways, but there are curious parallels when it comes to alcohol. Article 47 of the Indian constitution specifically commits the State to “endeavour to bring about prohibition of intoxicating drinks and drugs” along with raising “the level of nutrition and the standard of living and [improving] public health”.

Some Indian states did introduce full-scale prohibition, only for Andhra Pradesh, Haryana, Kerala, Manipur, Mizoram and Tamil Nadu to subsequently repeal it. Today, however Bihar, Gujarat, Mizoram, and Nagaland all still ban alcohol and, in 2017, nearly 30m Bihar citizens formed a human chain along 11,400km of roads to support prohibition. Elsewhere, drinking is forbidden on ‘dry days’ that add up to the equivalent of nearly a month per year. These include Republic Day in January and Independence Day in August and religious holidays such as Diwali, Good Friday and Christmas Day, and alcohol is also outlawed during elections. Maharashtra, the state where Mumbai and most of India’s vineyards are to be found, has more dry days than elsewhere and even boasts a ‘Prohibition Week’ from October 2-8 to mark the birth of Mahatma Ghandi.

Calling for prohibition is still seen as politically attractive in India, as Karnataka, a state with 67m citizens, saw recently. In a speech celebrating his appointment as advisor to its chief minister, the local politician, BR Patil, called for state governments across the country to impose a nationwide ban on alcohol sales.

Saved by the soldiers and sailors

New Zealand’s first ever national referendum in 1911 saw the pro-prohibition campaign win 56% of the votes - 259,943 against 205,661. Despite this, alcohol consumption continued, but a growing antipathy to alcohol led to reduced opening hours and the holding of another referendum in April 1919 in which the prohibitionists won a wafer-thin majority of 13,000 votes. This was overturned, however, by 32,000 of 40,000 New Zealand servicemen who were overseas or on ships heading home from service in the first world war. Eight months later the question was raised yet again in a vote held alongside a general election. This time the anti-prohibitionists won by just 1,600 votes.

Few remember that, when making their choice, the New Zealanders also had a third option of supporting the introduction of a monopoly over alcohol distribution. If that had been their choice and if it had not subsequently been overturned, would their country have created the successful wine industry we know today?

Trusted monopoly

Would a New Zealand alcohol monopoly have enjoyed the public support the Systembolaget receives in Sweden where, with the country’s universities, it is the nation’s second most trusted institution – behind the electoral system, and ahead of the police.

The creation of Systembolaget dates back to 1955 when the national body replaced a system of rationing and local distribution monopolies dating back to the early decades of the 20th century.

In 1919, in an attempt to tackle widespread alcoholism and alcohol abuse, ‘motbok’ ration books had been introduced to restrict the purchase of spirits - but not wine – and, in 1922, a referendum on full-scale prohibition was held. The vote against the move was very close: 51% to 49%. Norwegians, by contrast voted for prohibition in 1919 and lived with it until they changed their minds seven years later. Voters can be fickle creatures.

Historically, campaigners against alcohol were often associated with religion, but health was always part of their story. Today, those who would like to see alcohol disappear have the support of the World Health Organization and large volumes of – selectively chosen and potentially very convincing – medical studies.

As wine drinkers in the US celebrate 90 years of freedom from Prohibition, it might be premature to say that its reintroduction is totally unthinkable. After all, it is not so very long since the days when few Americans were predicting the overthrow of Roe v Wade and the return of a ban on abortion.

Academic Papers Wine

Warning labels, advertising bans and price changes could upend the European wine industry. Frederik Nikolai Schulz and Jon Hanf from Hochschule Geisenheim University report on current developments in European alcohol policy.

Reading time: 5m



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