I am no expert on American history, especially not American social history, so when I watched the documentary by Ken Burns on the Prohibition era and its antecedents it was all very new to me. I had no real idea about the longterm temperance movement that had begun in the 19th century, nor the political maneuverings that lead to prohibition being passed by Congress and by the requisite number of states. Nor did I know about the large role World War One played in Prohibition – the patriotic backlash against the large German beer companies and the replacement of excess tax with income tax as a large funder of the Federal government. If you haven’t seen the documentary I’d recommend it (it’s only about five hours long in total so much more easily digestible than the rest of Burns’ work).
I thought back to that documentary when I read the news that the current level of alcohol consumption in the USA is higher than it was during the Prohibition era. According to the AP, the average American drinks about 2.3 gallons of alcohol a year – or about 500 drinks a year (or about nine a week). Just before Prohibition came into effect in 1920, the average American was drinking just under two gallons a year. So if the temperance movement thought it was a problem then…
By the time prohibition was repealed in the early 1930s, the per capita alcoholic consumption in the USA was down below one (illegal) gallon a year. Since then the trend has been generally upwards, with consumption peaking in the early 1980s at 2.75 gallons. It then dropped down towards 2.1 gallons in the mid 1990s (due to growing attention to deaths from drunken driving and after Congress passed a law raising the drinking age to 21) before inching up to the current rate.
These twentieth century rates are small beer compared to the early 1800s: in 1830 the average US adult drank the equivalent of 7 gallons a year! But even though contemporary America is not that alcohol-soaked, there are still plenty of reasons for health professionals to fear the current ongoing rise in per capita drinking. There are corresponding increases in emergency room visits, hospitalizations and deaths related to drinking. More than 88,000 Americans die each year as a result of excessive drinking – a higher figure than those dying each year in the opioid epidemic. The number of alcohol related deaths has doubled since 1999, although a significant number of those deaths may be related to the increasingly deadly drugs used in the overdose epidemic – many people drink alcohol while taking drugs. About three in four of these alcohol-related deaths are men, although the female death rate among women is growing faster than that among men. Less seriously, health officials estimate that alcohol is a factor in one-third of serious falls among the elderly while more than half of the alcohol sold in the US is consumed during episodes of binge drinking.
Prohibition is not coming back. (The Burns’ documentary demonstrates why that would be a bad idea quite well.) But the health dangers of alcohol consumption are still around. And will continue to rise as long as consumption does.
Marcus Roberts is co-editor of Demography is Destiny, MercatorNet’s blog on population issues.