March 17, 2021 - 3:48pm

The news that Scotland is to allow pubs to reopen, but not to serve alcohol indoors, recalls the Prohibition Era that started a hundred years ago.

Between 1920 and 1933, the United States imposed a nationwide ban on the production, import, export and sale of most forms of booze. These days we simply call it “Prohibition” — and it’s become a byword for the unintended consequences of state interference in personal pleasures.

In our own era, it’s a favourite case study for the advocates of decriminalising the trade in cannabis and other drugs.

But was Prohibition the comprehensive failure that it’s now imagined to be?

In an article for VoxEU, David Jacks, Krishna Pendakur, Hitoshi Shigeoka write about their recent research into the effects of repealing Prohibition.

One would have thought that the effects of ending such an important government intervention in lives of so many people would be the subject of intensive study. But as the authors point out “there is surprisingly little research in quantitatively assessing its outcomes.”

Jacks and his colleagues have made an effort to put that right. Their own analysis makes use of the fact that there was a lot of local variation in the extent to which Prohibition was imposed and subsequently lifted. This goes right down to county level and beyond. (In fact, to this day, hundreds of counties and smaller jurisdictions still prohibit the sale of alcohol, either partially or wholly.)

In any case, for the 1933 to 1939 period the authors have a lot of fine-grained data to help them separate the specific impact of ending Prohibition from unrelated trends.

Some of their conclusions confirm the standard critiques of Prohibition. For instance, they found that lifting restrictions on the alcohol trade was associated with a reduction in homicides. There was a decrease in fatal accidents too (“importantly, this category includes accidental poisonings”, the authors note).

However, the data also confirms a huge downside to repeal:

“We find that repeal was associated with equivalent and significant increases in infant mortality in both counties that chose to allow for the sale of alcohol (wet counties) and in neighbouring counties that chose not to (dryish counties), suggesting a large role for cross-border policy spillovers… Cumulatively, we estimate that 4,493 annual excess infant deaths could be attributed to the repeal of federal Prohibition.”
- David Jacks, Krishna Pendakur, Hitoshi Shigeoka — VoxEU

The authors don’t come to any firm conclusion as to why the increased availability of alcohol resulted in this death toll. They mention drinking in pregnancy is one possible mechanism. It seems plausible that neglect was another cause — both as a direct result of intoxication and second-order effects like the impact on family stability and finances. In any case, they note that infant mortality is a “rough indicator of population health”.

Whatever its failings, it’s important to realise that Prohibition was not imposed as a result of a mere ‘moral panic’. There was a reason why so many people were desperate to get alcohol out of their communities — and why women were often at the forefront of the campaign to do so.