Prohibition makes an evidence-based comeback

The Prohibitionists of 1920s America could only look in envy at the way that ban-happy moralists have stormed the corridors of power today.

Patrick Hayes

Topics Books

‘After a century of the same old snake-oil, we might have become weary of the prohibitionist by now.’

So exclaims author Christopher Snowdon in his latest book The Art of Suppression: Pleasure, Panic and Prohibition since 1800. After all, given that – as he puts it – ‘few fiascos are more notorious’ than America’s so-called ‘Noble Experiment’ with the prohibition of alcohol in the early twentieth century, you could be forgiven for thinking that the prohibitionists themselves would have become weary by now. But this has not come to pass. As Snowdon rightly notes, new generations of prohibitionists are alive and thriving and finding more insidious ways than ever before to restrict our freedom to consume what we like.

There can be no doubting the ambition of Snowdon’s panoramic view of the history of prohibitions over the past two centuries. As he points out, we are seeing an ‘eclectic mix’ of world-first prohibitions by new ‘pioneers of prohibition’. These include bans on the burqa in Belgium, bans on shale-gas extraction in France, bans on chewing gum in Singapore, bans on the possession of tobacco in Bhutan, bans on minarets in Switzerland, bans on Marmite in Denmark. The list goes on and on. In Canada, the authorities even outlawed the Dire Straits song ‘Money for Nothing’. As for the UK, given the ‘legislative diarrhoea’ in the New Labour years – creating an average of 27 new offences per month – Snowdon would have lacked the space just to have listed the bans let alone analyse them.

Instead he wisely selects a handful of colourful and thoroughly researched examples of the prohibitionist surge, and draws parallels and, crucially, differences between the contemporary trend towards increased ‘mini prohibitions’ and the prohibition movements of the past.

Snowdon starts with the movement leading up to the ‘Noble Experiment’ of early-twentieth-century prohibition, which he identifies as marking the moment ‘when liberals resorted to using coercion to reform ordinary Americans’. He is at pains to be historically specific, emphasising, for instance, that the Anti-Saloon League was firmly of its time. In examining what made the prohibitionists tick, he quotes the historian Edward Behr, arguing that following the abolition of slavery, prohibition seeped almost by accident into the vacuum that remained for political campaigners at a time of rapid change in the US. There were ‘no wars, no major social upheavals, no immediate, overwhelming cause around which public opinion might be mobilised in the interested of justice and freedom. The prohibition issue became America’s lasting obsession largely by default.’

However, there are some things in common between prohibitionists then and now. Snowdon identifies, for example, that as early as 1913, campaigners were starting to shift their rhetoric from making moral arguments to evidence-based ones, with leading anti-alcohol campaigner Purley Baker ‘telling his almost exclusively Protestant audience to portray the battle for prohibition not as a religious crusade it so clearly was, but as an evidence-based policy rooted in sound science’.

Snowdon’s accounts of the misuse of selective scientific data to build a case for the prohibitionist movement are truly striking. The all-pervasive but very dodgy Scientific Temperance Instruction had such a hold on classrooms, for example, that by the time prohibition came to an end ‘almost every American under the age of 50 had grown up being taught that alcohol turned the heart into fat and turned blood into water’. He cites alcohol ‘fact sheets’ claiming the demon drink was responsible for ‘90 per cent of crime, 80 per cent of poverty and 70 per cent of cases of insanity’.

However, unlike now, campaigners used explicitly moral arguments to lobby the government to ban alcohol in order to ‘cut this millstone of degeneracy from the neck of humanity’. Snowdon identifies the First World War as delivering the knockout blow for the Dry movement against the Wets due to the ‘wave of hot-headed jingoism that erupted in 1917, combined with the desire to make post-war America a sober land fit for heroes [which] made prohibition inevitable’.

Yet for many campaigners during that period, they were never going to stop when alcohol was outlawed for good. Banning booze was only the start. Herman Trent, leading light of the Anti-Saloon League, wrote in a letter that he would ideally also close confectionery stores, delicatessen shops, low theatres, bathing beaches, the holding of socialistic, anarchistic and atheistic meetings, the sale of tea and coffee and ‘the making or sale of pastry, pie cake and such like trash’. Furthermore, in the eyes of many campaigners, it was no good doing all this solely in the US; prohibition had to be extended worldwide.

Of course, the ban-happy Anti-Saloon League never realised these goals. Prohibition was a massive practical failure, with speakeasies and home brewing gaining popularity throughout the US. By 1922, the US was, in the words of American politician Charles Towne, ‘a nation of self-appointed law-breakers’ that had become ‘the laughing stock of Europe’. However, Snowdon claims it was ultimately the recession that led to the abolition of prohibition.

But, as Snowdon identifies, the Anti-Saloon League did have some success: saloons and previously prevalent seedy joints never made a comeback. Equally, the related campaign to outlaw opium worldwide was eventually a success. So, for example, it was banned in Britain, despite the fact that consumption of opium was on the decline in the country and ‘millions of poor, semi-educated Britons self-medicated with opium in a way that rarely disrupted, and often facilitated, a life of hard work’.

Moving forward to more recent times, Snowdon turns to the EU ban of a Swedish product, snus – small, teabag-like pouches of moist tobacco placed under the user’s lip. For Snowdon, the ban illustrates the utter irrationality of the EU’s approach. Snowdon carefully charts the bizarre counter-intuitive reasoning that led to the ban: health risks were asserted, without research having been undertaken, and there was strong evidence that smokers would switch to snus as a way of quitting smoking. Yet the effects of snus are certainly less harmful than smoking tobacco. As Snowdon argues, ‘no one would advocate banning light ales and shandy for fear that they might act as a gateway to stronger, but legal, beverages’.

Yet, with the help of some Tippex to blot out qualifications on medical findings about health risks, the European Court of Justice finally outlawed the product in the 1990s. This leads Snowdon to suggest that the EU would ultimately have set its sights on many of the legal highs that currently give us pleasure, save for the fact that far too many people consume them to make further bans feasible.

Today Snowdon sees prohibitionists once again gaining the upper hand against liberals (this at a time when there exists a paradoxical situation where you get many so-called ‘liberals’ pushing for illiberal laws). However, he is quick to point out the differences between the early twentieth-century teetotal movement and its current incarnation: ‘Unlike their forebears, “alcohol control” groups are not in the business of moral suasion, nor do they rely on donations from the public. Instead they are overtly political lobby groups run by a small number of media-savvy professionals campaigning for what might be called “little prohibitions”.’ These ‘fear entrepreneurs’ use the media to generate unnecessary moral panics around substances ranging from so-called date-rape drug Rohypnol to the stimulant Meow Meow.

Snowdon believes that, unless the tide begins to turn, cigarettes – ‘coffin nails’ – will soon be next to go. And he also recognises that major organisations in the UK such as the British Medical Association are already on a mission to start ‘denormalising’ alcohol with some ‘experts’ such as the UK government’s former drugs adviser, Professor David Nutt, pushing for alcohol to be categorised as a more harmful drug than marijuana.

Snowdon’s faith in the coalition government’s ‘great repeal act’ to bring about a new era of freedom has rightly faded. As he points out, when the government asked the public which laws to ‘cast on the bonfire’, repealing drug prohibition, relaxing the smoking ban and restoring the death penalty were high on the public’s list. The government responded by ‘quietly shelving’ the initiative.

Ending on a somewhat pessimistic note, Snowdon claims ‘the fundamental change in political thinking that would acknowledge the human capacity for self-restraint and personal responsibility has never seemed further away’. However, in masterfully charting the history of the prohibitionists’ war on pleasurable substances, in highlighting their endless failures to impose restrictions on the public, in exposing their dodgy use of statistics and ‘evidence bases’ to disguise moral arguments, and in emphasising the ability of us as individuals to exercise our capacity for self-restraint and personal responsibility, Snowdon does all of us determined to challenge the contemporary prohibitionist movement a great service.

Patrick Hayes is a reporter for spiked. Visit his personal website here. Follow him on Twitter @p_hayes.

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