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Neo-prohibitionism - a blast from the past

By Paul Chase , 12-May-2010

Chase: interventions can cause problems that don't exist

Chase: interventions can cause problems that don't exist

The neo-prohibitionism campaign is misguided" and risks backfiring, says Paul Chase.

The spectacular comeback of alcohol as a social problem has spawned a fundamentally misguided campaign of neo-prohibitionism.


What distinguishes contemporary alcophobes from their 19th century pro-genitors is that they are too smart to simply call for outright prohibition of alcohol, instead they seek a more subtle, cultural prohibition whereby drinking becomes 'de-normalised'. We should be in no doubt what the end game is.


The early prohibitionists weren't shy about their moralistic motives. In the late 18th century the distinguished American physician Dr Benjamin Rush linked alcohol misuse and moral decline. In his view the reckless intake of 'spirituous liquor' would cause the weak and the feckless to become "lying, blaspheming, thieving gamblers".


The medical profession may have grown up a little in its attitude to alcohol since 1790, but not by much. Today we continue to see the medicalisation of morals. The Alcohol Health Alliance (AHA) takes a 'whole population' approach to alcohol harm reduction, claiming that we're all probably drinking too much; the only difference between social drinkers and chronic drinkers is how much too much!


We risk repeating the catastrophe that has resulted from drug prohibition if we keep over-pathologising non-problem drinking and exaggerating its risks. Every questionnaire I have ever seen, that offers you the chance to carry out a self-assessment of your own drinking habits, asks the same question, in one form or another: 'Do you ever find yourself needing a drink?'


We all know that there are problem drinkers, but an approach that targets interventions at people whose drinking isn't a problem is, by definition, inventing a problem where none exists.


So, what do today's neo-prohibitionists actually believe?


Firstly, that the substance of alcohol is itself the main cause of drinking problems - if they could dis-invent it, they would! Secondly, that it's the availability of alcohol that causes people to drink it. 'Availability' is a secular word that substitutes for 'temptation' - which, as everyone knows, we need to be protected from! Thirdly, that alcohol use typically leads to problem behaviour and not just vulnerable groups, like children, but probably all of us, need to be protected from it.


The policy prescriptions that this ideological view of alcohol produces are all about restriction: restricting availability by limiting the number of alcohol outlets, reducing opening hours, raising the minimum age of purchase, limiting promotions, restricting drinks' measures, restricting advertising and using taxation to raise prices.


Nowhere is this agenda more advanced than in Scotland where the Presbyterian disapproval of alcohol is still an incredibly strong influence. The UK Government is increasingly taking a similar hard-line approach. The problem with this approach is that the logic of it leads directly to prohibition.


The fact is every society from the most ancient to the most modern has had a legally or socially accepted intoxicant. Ours is alcohol. Those in our own time who seek to resurrect the 'glory days' of 19th century temperance should study the history of American prohibition. The social disaster of that failed experiment in social engineering is a warning from history of what happens when government goes too far in its attempts to legislate the sober society.


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Paul Chase is a Director and Head of UK Compliance at CPL Training, and has carried out extensive historical research into the UK and American temperance movements and their contemporary inheritors.

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