Understanding Alcohol Regulation

toward liquor controlEven with the federal government seeming to grow too large today, it’s hard to imagine a time when the government went so far as to prohibit the sale of alcohol. The 18th amendment to the U.S. Constitution did just that, and now the Center for Alcohol Policy is republishing information to increase the understanding of alcohol regulation.

The 18th Amendment

A quick history lesson: The 18th amendment, passed in 1920, prohibited the manufacture, sale, and distribution of alcohol. That resulted from almost a hundred years of effort by religious organizations that considered alcohol, or more specifically, public drunkenness, to be a “national curse.” According to History.com’s “18th and 21st Amendments,” temperance legislation appeared on the books in Massachusetts as early as 1838 with a law prohibiting the sale of alcohol in quantities less than 15 gallons. It lasted two years; however, Maine followed with a prohibition law in 1846 with other states passing similar laws by the start of the Civil War.

Groups, including the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League along with the likes of Carrie Nation (noted for her violent protests against alcohol sales), lobbied and stumped to convince the population that eliminating alcohol would eliminate crime and poverty. Almost half of the states enacted anti-saloon laws by 1916.

The Result of Prohibition

Prohibition turned out to be bad for economy, and lost jobs skyrocketed when distilleries and breweries closed. The expectation that banning alcohol sales would boost the sale of other goods and entertainment didn’t pan out either. In fact, it had the opposite effect. Restaurants were hurting to turn a profit due to the inability to sell alcohol, and theater revenues declined as well. The federal government lost approximately $11 billion dollars in excise tax revenue and simultaneously spent $300 million to enforce the ban on alcohol sales.

The 18th amendment didn’t ban the consumption of alcohol, and as a result, bootleg alcohol sales grew, typically offering a lesser quality product. In fact, it could be downright lethal. Thousands died from the effects of drinking tainted liquor. Prohibition-created crime reduction? Quite the opposite – crime rates rose. Famed gangster Al Capone pocketed about $60 million annually from his illegal alcohol sales empire.

The 21st Amendment

Part of FDR’s campaign platform was to overturn Prohibition, and the 21st amendment repealed the alcohol sales ban, marking the first time a Constitutional amendment had ever been repealed. The second section of the amendment states: “The transportation or importation into any State, Territory, or possession of the United States for delivery or use therein of intoxicating liquors, in violation of the laws thereof, is hereby prohibited.” The interpretation of this section is that it effectively sent the control of alcohol back to the states. As a result, a number of states passed legislation continuing to ban alcohol sales. Mississippi maintained its “dry” status until 1966, marking the final end of the “noble experiment” as Prohibition was known; however, Kansas prohibited public bars until 1987.

The Origin of Today’s Alcohol Regulator System

The Origin of Today’s Alcohol Regulator System, an educational video created by the Center for Alcohol Policy, recently won a silver medal in the TRENDS All Media contest in the “CD, Video, Podcast, or PSA” category. The video features the Center’s republication of Toward Liquor Control, first published after the repeal of Prohibition to provide a guide for alcohol regulatory control. The Center’s introduction to the book sums it up as “It’s in there”: “For anyone who has ever wondered how America’s alcohol regulatory systems were created, how they have worked, and why they have stood the test of time, ‘It’s in there’ best summarizes Toward Liquor Control. Ask a series of questions about important and historical and recurring alcohol policies and the answer is the same: ‘It’s in there.’”


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