Showing posts with label Prohibition Era. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Prohibition Era. Show all posts

Sunday, March 31, 2024

Where Did the Prohibitionists Go?

Spoiler alert: Not far.

If you have visited your doctor recently, you may have gotten a new advice about drinking; that is, no amount of alcohol is safe.

Wait, what?! What happened to doing all things in moderation or the Mediterranean diet?

Mediterranean diet by Kamil Kalbarczyk on Unsplash

But before that, let’s delve into the history of wine and prohibitionism.

When Wine Was Good

It is believed that wine has been a part of the human civilization since the Neolithic Period (Late Stone Age). There were evidence of winemaking and grape storage from the Caucasus to the Zagros Mountains as far back as 6000 BCE. By 3500 BCE, the first wine trade started in the Mesopotamia, and wine consumption expanded to Egypt, Greece, and Rome.

The Bible also records the partaking of wine, which was often associated with celebrations. Noah was notably the first winemaker in the Old Testament. After the great flood, he cultivated a vineyard, made wine, and even got drunk. In the Gospel according to John, Jesus’s first miracle was turning water into wine at a wedding in Cana. In today’s church, Christians partake the sacraments of bread and wine during Eucharist, although some denominations have substituted wine with non-alcoholic grape juice.

Eucharist by James Coleman on Unsplash

The appeal of wine to early human civilizations is two-fold: First, it removed inhibition and alleviated the stress of day-to-day living in a world sans the safety and creature comforts that we enjoy today. Second, alcohol held medicinal value as a natural antiseptic for tending wounds and certain ailments. Moreover, the lack of proper sanitation in the old days made wine the safer beverage of choice than water.

From Moderation to Prohibition

Fast forward to the 18th Century, the Industrial Revolution brought forth huge manufacturing facilities with heavy machinery. Sobriety in the workforce became important to ensure workplace safety. The distribution of wealth started to widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots. By the 19th Century, excessive alcohol consumption, especially among the working class, became a social problem. Alcohol abuse was also linked to disease and death. This led to the early temperance movement, that consisted mostly of middle class church goers, urging moderation in alcohol consumption.

 Spilled Wine by Anita Jankovic on Unsplash

Over time, the temperance movement became more radical and political, advocating for legal prohibition of alcohol consumption. In 1838, Massachusetts set the precedent by banning certain sales of spirits. Over the next few decades, other states started enforcing prohibition as well. By 1920, the Prohibition Era began at the federal level with the 18th Amendment to the Constitution and the National Prohibition Act. The legislation banned the manufacture, transportation, and sale of intoxicating liquors.

Unintended Consequences

Enforcing the Prohibition proved to be challenging. Following an initial decline in alcohol consumption, illegal production and sale of liquor began to rise as people sought alcohol in the black market. Speakeasies flourished and multiplied, fueled by the consumer culture and social revolution of the Roaring ’20s.

The high demand of bootleg alcohol also meant that quality access was limited to the upper and middle classes. The working class was left with cheap moonshine that, when tainted with toxins, took away thousands of lives every year. Gang violence and organized crime associated with illegal bootlegging skyrocketed, and the support for the Prohibition began to diminish.

Roaring ’20s by Phil Robson on Unsplash

In 1929, the stock market bubble started to burst, plunging the country into the Great Depression. The costs associated with enforcing the Prohibition could not be sustained. On the contrary, legalizing the liquor industry had an economic appeal of creating new jobs and sources of revenue. By 1933, the 21st Amendment was ratified to end the Prohibition. While a handful of states continued to prohibit alcohol thereafter, these too removed the ban by 1966.

What About Now?

Since the end of the Prohibition Era, the temperance movement kept a relatively low profile. It generally focused its effort on communicating research findings on alcohol and health. While that might seem innocuous, the wine industry was taken by surprise when the World Health Organization (WHO) declared in 2023 that there is no safe level of alcohol consumption. This is in contradiction to its prior claim that drinking in moderation has health benefits.

WHO’s published “Reporting about alcohol: guide for journalists” was heavily critiqued as half of its contributors came from temperance groups, such as Movendi International, NCD Alliance as well as the Global Alcohol Policy Alliance and its regional subsidiaries. In fact, these temperance groups have been partnering with WHO since the 2018 launch of the SAFER initiative, which seeks to reduce alcohol-related harms.

The most impactful research around alcohol and health to date is the one led by John Hopkins biologist Raymond Pearl in 1926. Pearl observed the famous J-curve, which suggested that alcohol has a protective effect on cardiovascular health when consumed in moderate amount. This amount translated to no more than one drink for women or two drinks for men per day. While subsequent studies mostly supported the J-curve and a few claimed to “debunk” it, no scientific consensus has been reached.

My Verdict: Obviously, one has to make one’s choice regarding alcohol consumption. For me, the long history of wine association with celebrations and medicinal value far outweighs the relatively brief and recent anti-alcohol sentiments of the temperance movement. While I don’t support alcohol abuse, I certainly believe that life is more than disease prevention. On that note, let me raise my glass to your good health. Santé!