subscribe: Posts | Comments      Facebook      Email Steve

The heavy hand of neo-prohibitionism, Down Under



In the late 1980s and 1990s we witnessed a movement in this country that came to be called “neo-prohibitionism,” a neologism that expressed a very dangerous trend.

The “prohibitionism” part was of course a reference to the disastrous “noble experiment” by which America outlawed alcoholic beverages between 1919 and 1933. That stupid, unconstitutional ban was overturned by Repeal, which itself was pushed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt when he became President, proving once again that, yes, it does matter who occupies the Oval Office, because they’re not all the same.

“Neo” comes from the Latin root-word for “new.” Thus, “neo-prohibitionism” constituted the “new prohibition” or, at least, an inclination on the part of some Americans to enforce their view that the consumption of alcoholic beverages—if it could not be entirely outlawed as their predecessors had accomplished in 1919—at least could be slowed down and perhaps, at some local county and township levels, eliminated completely.

How these “neo-pros” went about their business 25 years ago was nefarious and broad-ranging. They advocated massive tax increases on alcohol (when you heavily tax a thing its consumption always falls), they put on a scare campaign about the dangers of foil capsules, they put their weight behind Mothers Against Drunk Driving (which had begun as an anti-drunk-driving group but morphed into an extreme anti-alcohol one) and they became associated with anti-alcohol fronts such as the San Rafael-based Marin Institute (now renamed Alcohol Justice). These anti-alcohol forces eventually were defeated, because they failed to gain traction among normal people, and due also to the courageous efforts of Wine Institute and its then head, John DeLuca.

Down but not out, however, the neo-pros remained silently active in their burrows, and not just in this country, but across the English-speaking world. (And isn’t it interesting that Islamic fundamentalists share with the neo-pros a common fear and loathing of alcohol?) The latest country to witness a resurgence of neo-prohibitionism, to a shocking level, is Australia, where police in the country’s largest city, Sydney, recently raided a bistro on the charge that its wine list, written on a blackboard, was “promoting unsavoury antisocial behavior.” How’s that? Apparently, in the view of the local constabulary, the bistro was encouraging people to drink!

We’ve seen this kind of response right here in my home town of Oakland, where there’s long been a movement to limit the number of liquor stores in poor neighborhoods, on the grounds that they sell cheap booze to people who then go out and commit crimes. That is a legitimate concern on the part of city government. But the Sydney bistro, 10 William Street, is not a liquor store; it is a wine bar-restaurant whose menu includes gnocchi with duck, mushrooms and ricotta, and grilled bonito with iceberg lettuce and ink vinegar.

Not exactly a poor-neighborhood gin joint!

Reaction to the Sydney cops’ heavy-handed approach has been predictably scathing. One patron who was dining there during the raid called it “bizarre” and said she was “very annoyed.” Twitter lit up with the usual snark: “full nanny state mode,” “Shock: people want to consume wine with dinner,” and I love this one: “Police claiming 10 William Street is operating as a bar, not a restaurant, clearly haven’t tried the pappardelle.”

Well, that’s the best way to counter-attack these neo-pros: Make them the objects of ridicule. Look, they will never go away. Sometimes they’re visible, sometimes they retreat, but they’re always plotting to get rid of Demon Rum. Carrie Nation may be dead these past 115 years, but her repressing spirit haunts us still.

  1. Bob Henry says:

    Somewhat on the subject of “promoting unsavoury antisocial behavior” is this Monday newspaper article:

    From The Wall Street Journal “Investing in Funds & ETFS” Special Report
    (February 8, 2016, Page R7):

    “What’s Behind the Siren Call of Sin Stocks;
    Alcohol, tobacco and other ‘vice’ shares do relatively well in a down market.”


    By Gerrard Cowan
    “Portfolio Strategy” Column

    [“Mr. Cowan is a writer in London.”]

  2. One reliable sign of alarmist neoprohibitionist propaganda is the use of the phrase “binge drinking.” I don’t know about the rest of you, but for me that phrase conjures up images of Nicholas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas. It turns out that the usual “scientific” definition is 4 or more drinks in an evening for men, and 3 or more for women. Which would not be a healthy daily consumption level, but as an occasional indulgence is hardly cause for concern. But “College Students Get Drunk on Weekends” doesn’t make for as scary a headline as “Binge Drinking Rampant Among College Students.”

    The other statistic to watch out for is “alcohol-related” in the context of automobile accidents. The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration defines that term as any accident in which any driver, passenger, or pedestrian has had any amount of alcohol whatsoever. It has nothing to do with whether the alcohol CAUSED the accident. In other words, if a completely sober driver runs a stop sign and hits a pedestrian who had a beer an hour earlier, it’s an “alcohol-related accident.” Or if you’re doing the responsible thing and taking a taxi home from the bar, and there’s a crash between the cab driver and a third party (both completely sober): still an “alcohol-related accident” because you were in the back seat. Which is misleading at best, especially when groups like MADD try to use that statistic to imply that alcohol caused those accidents.

  3. Bill Stephenson says:

    The most obvious sign of creeping “Neo-Prohibition” is the lowering of the DUI threshold from .08 Blood Alcohol Level to .05
    MADD has been a leading proponent

    This lowered level is already law in several counties, which no doubt has had a profound effect on lawyers (more work, more fees) and County coffers (more fines and diversion programs).

    According to the Medicos, a 120lb woman reaches this threshold with 1 drink. A 180lb man somewhere around a few sips into his 3rd within 1 hour.
    Don’t get me wrong – I’m not advocating binge drinking – but going to a dinner party and cutting yourself off after the first drink?
    Why drink at all?

    There are also social and economic consequences.
    Anecdotally: a good friend opened a Brewery/Restaurant/Bar in my hometown and it was a smashing success -and- employed 75 people. The local PD soon started parking around the corner and pulling patrons over as soon as they left the parking lot without probable cause. They even followed one patron for 2 miles right up to her driveway and arrested her at home.

    Soon business dropped off and shifts were eliminated, followed by a few jobs.
    The owners went before the City Council and Chief of Police and eventually got the police to back off. It took almost a year for business to pick up to previous levels.

  4. Bill,

    My understanding is that there wasn’t even much, if any, scientific justification for the reduction of the legal limit from .10 to .08. Let alone the move to .05. And every time I see some new study that says that some form of “distracted driving” is equivalent to a blood alcohol level of (whatever), with the implication being that well, guess we’d better ban that too, I wonder if we’re not drawing the wrong conclusion.

    But it’s a tough side of the debate to take. Even now, I’m waiting for someone to show up in these comments, accuse you and me of condoning drunk driving, and make an emotional appeal to one of the many truly tragic stories of lives ruined by drunk driving.

  5. Suppression breeds reaction. Severe suppression breeds severe reaction. One of the primary consequences of Prohibition was… the Roaring ’20s.

    Russians endured centuries of tyrannical czarist abuse with reasonable social and political stability. Then, one week (one week!) after Nicholas II banned vodka, the Russian Revolution began.

    Viva la revolucion!

  6. I cannot weigh in on the “right” percent of blood alcohol. But I can say this: In 2001 I stopped drinking and driving. I didn’t stop drinking, and I didn’t stop driving, but I ceased to combine the two.

  7. Steve, I’m not as absolutist as you, but my own driving decisions are pretty conservative these days. Uber has been a real help in that regard.

    There are lots of things I wouldn’t do myself that I don’t think should be illegal!

Leave a Reply


Recent Comments

Recent Posts