Commentary

A Toast to the Holiday?

This article was published in the Washington Times, January 1, 2004.

‘Tis the season of office holiday parties, family holiday parties, trade group holiday parties and, in Washington, lobbyist holiday parties. And if it’s the season of the party, it’s also the season of the cocktail — of eggnog aperitifs, Irish coffee and New Year’s champagne.

The December just ended also happened to mark the 70th anniversary of the repeal of alcohol Prohibition. For 13 years early last century, a nip of anything but Jack Frost himself might get you fined, or tossed in the tank. Despite the grand and complete failure that Prohibition was, it’s becoming increasingly clear this holiday season that there are a growing number of Scrooges out there who refuse to learn the lessons of history.

A new generation of temperance advocates are again agitating against alcohol. A slew of government organizations, nonprofit groups and “public health” foundations are setting the stage for what you might call a “back door to prohibition.”

Organizations such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, and the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse have advocated for an incremental, multi-pronged attack to restrict your access to alcohol. They are calling for excise taxes, restrictions on alcohol advertising, tougher public intoxication laws, and laws aimed at holding the alcohol, restaurant and tavern industries liable for alcohol abuse. In short, these neo-prohibitionists aim to use legislation and litigation to control the “environment of alcohol,” instead of holding individual drinkers accountable for their actions.

And they’re finding success.

In the last two years, 29 states have either adopted or attempted to pass increases in taxes on alcohol. Several U.S. cities, including Oakland, Baltimore and Cleveland, have either banned alcohol ads on city billboards or severely restricted them. Twenty-two states have imposed restrictions on happy-hour drink specials. Thirty-one have “social host” laws, which hold party hosts (even private parties) liable for the actions of guests who consumed alcohol at private residences. Advocates have indicated that they will use the campaign against tobacco as their model, and that we can soon expect to see litigation aimed at further limiting how and when and where we get our drink.

All of these initiatives are advocated under the umbrella of “public health.” Curb Americans’ access to alcohol, the thinking goes, and you’ll also curb alcohol consumption. Curb consumption, and you’ll curb the costs on society caused by alcohol abuse. Unfortunately, the evidence suggests otherwise.

First, there’s increasing support for the theory that moderate alcohol consumption brings far more good than harm. Recent medical studies have credited moderate consumption with helping to prevent everything from heart disease to pulmonary function to prostate cancer. In 1994, the Journal of the American Medical Association editorialized that moderate alcohol consumption could prevent as many as 80,000 American deaths each year.

There’s also evidence that liberalizing our alcohol laws will do more to minimize the deleterious effects of alcohol than tightening them. The Adam Smith Institute, a London free-market think tank, reports that Scotland has been gradually liberalizing its restrictions on its pubs, to the point where bars there can today stay open around the clock. Scots have begun to drink less as a result, and tend to nurse their drinks over longer periods of time, instead of binging in the hours before the bars close (known in Australia as the “5 o’clock swill”). Alcohol-related arrests are down in Scotland, as are alcohol-related health conditions and injuries.

The Netherlands recently relaxed its liquor laws to allow discotheques and clubs to operate around the clock. The country has since seen a significant reduction in closing-time street crime. Some clubs began running buses to shuttle patrons home. Others now serve breakfast to the hardiest of bar-hoppers.

In contrast, the Institute points out, countries that have already enacted the kinds of policies temperance advocates are pushing in the United States (Canada, England and the Scandinavian countries, for example), have continued to battle problems associated with alcohol abuse. Excessive taxation and restrictions on access to alcohol in Britain have created thriving black markets. Scandinavian countries have tried to control alcohol behavior with stringent access laws, and have battled alcohol-related social ills all along the way.

Our lawmakers should learn from Prohibition. This is a country that will drink with the blessing of the law, or will drink in spite of it. As America reflects on 70 years of freedom of libation, we should also remember that it isn’t the “environment of alcohol” that needs to be held responsible for alcohol abuse, it’s the individuals who abuse alcohol.

Radley Balko is a policy analyst with the Cato Institute.