Communicating the Lessons of Prohibition
In recent months, a fascination with the culture of Prohibition has taken hold in our country, as HBO’s popular Prohibition-era television series Boardwalk Empire launched its second season and renowned director Ken Burns’ three-part television documentary, Prohibition, premiered in October. The impressive ratings for each of these productions reveal America’s strong interest in this compelling, yet dark, chapter in our nation’s history.
By bringing the unintended consequences of Prohibition and the failures of this one-size-fits-all system back to life on screen, these dramatic depictions shine a national spotlight on the important role that Prohibition played leading up to the 21st Amendment. American Beverage Licensees (ABL) members and beer distributors across the country know that the repeal of the 18th Amendment and national Prohibition, and the lessons learned from it, paved the way for today’s effective system of state-based alcohol controls. Society’s renewed interest in this time period offers a valuable opportunity for us to further educate the public about the origin and benefits of today’s system of alcohol controls. As an industry, it’s important that we come together to communicate the lessons of Prohibition and the success of the system we have today.
The U.S. Constitution was written to ensure “the blessings of liberty” for all its citizens. Yet the 18th Amendment stands apart as an amendment specifically designed to limit, not advance, individual freedoms. Enacted in 1919, the 18thAmendment banned the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcohol within the United States. Thus began the era of Prohibition that remained the law of the land for 13 long years before it was repealed by the 21st Amendment.
Prior to Prohibition, alcohol abuse was widespread. However, instead of dealing with the issue through appropriate regulation, a wide variety of political interests aligned and a one-size-fits-all, nationwide approach was adopted – banning alcohol outright. The effort drove drinking underground, created celebrity gangsters and made a mockery of our justice system. The well heeled continued to imbibe, while working class men and women were often targeted for violating the Volstead Act and jailed for drinking.
At one end of the spectrum, excessive and unconstrained consumption prior to Prohibition led to the backlash. The result was that the Constitution was used not to balance freedom with responsibility but to criminalize a behavior that had previously been legal. Nonetheless, what happened after Prohibition’s repeal is where our government got it right and restored the Constitution to a consistently positive force.
Following ratification of the 21st Amendment in 1933, the easiest thing for elected politicians to do would have been simply to walk away from their duty to promote the general welfare and let the nation slip back to a pre-Prohibition, anything-goes arrangement. Instead, because it had been made clear that alcohol is different than other consumer products, national leaders took the harder path, learned from the mistake of Prohibition and created a system of safeguards within a competitive market that delicately balances vastly competing interests.
The 21st Amendment essentially hit the reset button, but this time it eschewed the strongly federalized role for alcohol policy and made it clear that individual states have the right to decide what’s best for them. The result today is a locally accountable and dynamic system that offers widespread access for adults, generates inter-brand competition, enacts controls that are reflective of citizens’ attitudes about alcohol and provides revenue through taxation. As members of the local communities where they do business, ABL members and beer distributors know that this local oversight is key because communities are impacted when alcohol is consumed to the extreme or by underage youth.
Balancing the access that consumers want with the safeguards that commonsense requires is no easy feat. While not perfect, the system works well today. In the beer industry, America’s distributors deliver more than 13,000 diverse labels by producers large and small to restaurants, bars and retailers coast-to-coast. At the same time, states apply differing controls that reflect the respective desires of their citizens. States also enact and enforce tough drunk driving laws and they monitor producers, distributors and retailers to ensure that those involved with the manufacture, sale or transportation of alcohol are held to a higher standard of responsibility.
All of us – the alcohol industry, government and individuals – have a role to play in ensuring the proper treatment of alcohol in our society. There are myriad views and, yes, competing interests, surrounding this socially-sensitive product. Yet, if we’ve learned anything from the experience of Prohibition, it’s that civil discourse can help us find common ground and lead to a reasoned, balanced approach where society is the ultimate beneficiary.
So as we look back on the lessons of Prohibition, we can raise a glass – legally – to toast its repeal and today’s effective system that guards against the excesses and abuses that led to Prohibition in the first place. And that’s a story worth telling.
National Beer Wholesalers Association President & CEO Craig Purser provides industry commentary each quarter for ABL Insider, a publication of American Beverage Licensees (ABL), a national trade association for retail alcohol beverage license holders across the United States. Each column provides insight on issues of concern to beer distributors, their retail partners and others in the alcohol beverage industry. To learn more about ABL Insider, please visit http://ablusa.org/news/abl-insider.