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Repealed 82 Years Ago, the Spirit of Prohibition Lives On

Tomorrow, December 5, many of us will raise a glass in celebration of Repeal Day—the anniversary of the end of that disastrous experiment of alcohol prohibition in the U.S. For most, the era of prohibition feels distant and forgotten; we assume because it ended more than 80 years ago, every last remnant of it is dead and buried. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.

Despite the passage of the 21st Amendment, which officially repealed prohibition, aspects of the prohibition-era mentality live on in the form of state and local-level bans on alcohol sales on Sundays, Election Days and Holidays like Christmas. There’s also the three-tiered system which was set up after prohibition’s repeal, which forces an artificial separation between the makers, distributors and sellers of alcohol—a burdensome system that serves little purpose at this point other than to protect certain businesses (and about which you can read more here). But the truly important hangover from Prohibition is the temperance mentality—the idea that certain people know what is best and have the right to use the government to force their opinions on others. While the hatchet is gone, public health advocates wage war on all kinds of products with a zeal Carrie Nation would be proud of.

Those of the new temperance movement learned an important lesson from the failure of prohibition: bans don’t work. They serve only to arouse that part of the American psyche that rankles at the thought of being told what to do. Instead, they try to slowly squeeze the product out of the market through taxation and restrictions on sales and advertising. But the first step is to wage a public relations campaign to paint a product as “evil.” Gone are the days of demon rum; today’s crusaders try to label something as “unhealthy” and a drain on the healthcare system.

Take, for example, Four Loko. The brightly colored can of alcohol mixed with energy drink was once a favorite among hard-partying college students until it was taken off the market in 2010—not because of any evidence that the product was inherently dangerous to consumers, but because a coalition of health advocates and busybody lawmakers convinced the general population it was a “bad” product we needed protection from. To be fair, it did taste awful—like licking a battery—but the kids liked it. They liked it so much that it was dubbed “blackout in a can” by the media for the handful of news stories connecting the drink with kids ending up in the hospital because they were too intoxicated. Sensational news accounts (and some university researchers) tried to make the case that the combination of alcohol and stimulants, rather than just irresponsible behavior, caused these incidents. Because college kids never black out from alcohol alone.

The news stories combined with the calls from public health advocates to “do something,” worked. State law makers and state AGs pressured the FDA into sending letters to the makers of Four Loko and other alcoholic energy drinks, to take their products off the market (one of those companies went out of business as a result).

More recently, health advocates have been targeting salt, sugar, and caffeine in energy drinks. We are currently in the midst of the media war against the additive. Hardly a day goes by without some news outlet publishing stories with titles like “Man nearly BLINDED by energy drinks,” “Some heart trouble with your energy drink,” “Teaching assistant who drank just ONE can of energy drink a day has heart surgery after it 'caused her pulse rate to triple'.” Bans of energy drink sales for minors have been floated in numerous states and counties with only one, to my knowledge, passing a ban on the sale of energy drinks to minors (Suffolk Country, NY).

Beyond caffeinated drinks, sugar-sweetened drinks are certainly in the cross-hairs of health advocates. Berkley California was the first in the nation to pass a sugary drinks tax with advocates hoping others will follow suit. While some insist adding a few cents of tax onto drinks results in decreased consumption while others point to the fact that real-world drinks taxes do little to alter consumer behavior. Then there’s the question of whether any real-world effect could even be attributed to the taxes alone or at all. Americans’ sugar consumption has been declining since 1999. Why? Well, it’s probably a mix of things. Certainly the health advocates efforts to scare the crap out of people has finally convinced some to maybe not guzzle a 2 liter bottle of coke every day and to not let their kids drink sugary drinks at-will. But it’s also because of the increasing option of no-calorie and water—at least, this is the theory posited by the USDA in 2013 when trying to figure out the cause of the decline. This still hasn’t stopped advocates from recommending a tax to solve the obesity problem. Most recently, the US government’s advisory panel on dietary guidelines recommended a tax on foods high in sugar or sodium.

So, although we celebrate the end of the ridiculously unsuccessful attempt to prohibit alcohol sales in the 1920s, it’s important we remember how easily it could happen again. 82 years ago alcohol was the evil product nobody wanted to defend, Today it’s fat, sugar and caffeine—and to a certain degree it’s still alcohol. But if we want to prevent prohibition from reoccurring we must defend the right of each individual to consume what he or she wants. Even if we don’t think it is good for them, it should be their decision to make.