All Commentary
Monday, April 1, 1996

Born Again: The Resurgence of American Prohibition

Prohibitionism Is Fatally Flawed as Public Policy

Seventy-six years ago, America outlawed beverage alcohol. Initially popular, national Prohibition eventually collapsed amid a chorus of public resentment. The nation learned then what we know now: Prohibition doesn’t work.

For all of its good intentions, prohibitionism is fatally flawed as public policy. It injects government into private lives. It makes criminals out of law-abiding citizens. And it tramples on our heritage of individual freedom and responsibility.

Yet prohibitionism is alive and well. In fact, the nation could be on its way to making some of the same mistakes it made during the 1920s. This time the target isn’t alcohol, it’s tobacco.

No one with any sense is calling for a constitutional amendment against smoking. But prohibition doesn’t require such a drastic step. In 1920, when the nation voted for Prohibition, the majority of districts in America were already dry. Local option laws, temperance publicity, and tax policies had produced a de facto or “backdoor” prohibition in most of the country.

Similarly, smoking now faces “backdoor” prohibition. Restrictions on advertising, increasing bans on smoking, FDA efforts to regulate tobacco products, assaults on the tobacco industry, and abuses heaped on smokers all have the ring of the old crusade against Demon Rum.

Prohibition has never been just about drinking or smoking. Most reformers have wider social agendas. And the risk-free society some seem bent on creating today looks a lot like the perfectionist idealism of a century and more ago. Ardent drys were not content to mitigate problems; they wanted a nation fully cleansed of its “evils.”

The same is true today, despite evidence that intrusive legal remedies are unnecessary. Drinking declined before Prohibition. Under the impact of temperance education, millions of Americans voluntarily gave up the bottle well before the first dry laws. Yet anti-liquor crusaders drove on, unwilling to tolerate any drinking. Today, the anti-smoking crusade persists despite declines in smoking. Since the 1964 Surgeon General’s Report, perhaps 40 million or more have quit. But the legal quest for social perfection continues; voluntary choice doesn’t suit the reform mentality.

Unfortunately, prohibitionism has degraded public discourse. Zealous to eliminate drinking, drys eventually demonized drinkers. The current anti-tobacco movement has targeted smokers for similar treatment. The matter goes well beyond forcing smokers to huddle in doorways; it has struck at the ability of the nation to conduct a civil public policy debate.

All too often reformers have let advocacy outrun evidence. Their claims of addiction are a case in point. Temperance zealots insisted that all drinking led to addiction. This was obvious nonsense, and the public ultimately called them on it. Similarly many smokers may find it hard to quit, but millions have quit. Exaggerated claims of addiction are the rhetoric of a movement determined on victory at all costs.

How far will the logic of prohibition extend? Using arguments similar to those employed against drinking and smoking, a few social critics already have targeted strong perfumes because they offend others or trigger allergies. Some would tax low-nutrition foods because those who eat them could pose a burden on the health-care system.

The implications of these prohibitionist initiatives are staggering. Heart disease remains America’s greatest killer, so should we tax beef or eggs because of their cholesterol content? Do we ban suntanning because it causes cancer? Or any other personal behavior because someone else has determined that it is not good for us?

However well-meaning its goals, the results of prohibition have been disappointing. In the early 1920s, national Prohibition posted only short-term successes in reducing drinking and alcohol-related problems. Illegal markets grew steadily. Consumption levels climbed. So did disrespect for the law and the corruption of law enforcement.

Severe anti-tobacco regulations could lead to the same kinds of trouble. It is clear that illegal markets will fill any void created through cigarette bans. In 1993, for example, Canada imposed draconian cigarette taxes in an effort to discourage smoking. Smugglers were soon supplying about one-third of all Canadian cigarette sales. Michigan tried to tax tobacco into extinction a year later and saw citizens turn to bootlegged products. Moreover, serious First Amendment issues have arisen from efforts to curb tobacco advertising. Unreasonable legal and regulatory attacks on behavior as personal as smoking and drinking have caused at least as many problems as they have solved.

Clearly the excesses of prohibitionism are unnecessary. Today, the public is served well through educational campaigns. These are noncoercive and they work: witness the dramatic decline in smoking after 1964.

Furthermore, all states and many cities have laws against tobacco sales to children. These should be enforced. The consistent application of such laws does not inhibit the free choice of adults. Yet it may serve to eliminate an emotional propaganda theme among anti-tobacco zealots.

America is a democracy and Americans can obviously ban behavior that they find objectionable. They have in the past. They may again. Before they do, they should be aware of the damaging implications of banning tobacco. And we all should be honest enough to call it what it is—prohibition.