Abstinence or Moderate Drinking? Reflecting on the US Prohibition in Britain
Ryosuke Yokoe | 18 December 2018
◇ British History | North American History | Modern History | Social History
On 18 December 1917, the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution was put forward in the United States Senate, stipulating a federal ban on the production, distribution, and sale of alcoholic beverages. Upon its enforcement in January 1920, the Prohibition era, lasting to its eventual repeal in 1933, saw the culmination of the century-long battle against liquor by the temperance movement.
Alongside America, Canada, Norway, and Finland already moved to implement a similar nationwide ban on alcohol. Britain, on the other hand, was one of the few exceptions, being among the nations where alcohol was historically politicised for not undergoing total prohibition. Comparing British and American experiences reveals that approaches to alcohol regulation have been shaped by assumed ideals about how one should, or shouldn’t, drink. The alcohol debate in the early 20th century was defined by the question on whether the promotion of abstinence was truly preferable over moderation, a disagreement that has recently experienced a noticeable comeback in Britain.
The significance of the circumstances surrounding the First World War cannot be understated when looking at the Prohibition as a global trend. Reflecting on the disruptive effects that drunkenness had had on mobilisation during the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-5, the Russian Empire ceased all production and sale of vodka following the outbreak of war in July 1914. Before formally entering the war in April 1917, temperance groups like the Anti-Saloon League had already succeeded in banning the sale of alcohol in large sections of the United States. Eventually, wartime conditions led to the implementation of Prohibition at a federal level.
Britain also enacted its own set of countermeasures against the disruption caused by alcohol on the war effort. In the summer of 1915, Lloyd George established the Central Control Board (CCB) as a branch of the state intended to regulate the liquor trade. Aside from enforcing higher beverage duties and shorter opening hours for pubs, the CCB enacted a set of innovative policies to achieve its goals. These included a ban on ‘treating’ (buying drinks for anyone other than yourself), the installation of canteens in munitions factories to rival drinking establishments, and the nationalisation of pubs and off-licenses in regions pivotal to the war economy.
The Board’s perceived success in reducing consumption was among the primary reasons why prohibition was never implemented in Britain. The discovery that widespread drunkenness could be tamed by controlling the distribution of alcohol led many to dismiss a total ban as being unnecessarily disruptive. Medical expertise also played a key role in such debates. Evidence derived from wartime clinical and psychological research showed that, while excessive consumption was clearly detrimental to health, moderate drinking had negligible effects on the body. To many contemporaries, this indicated that legislation should promote moderation instead of total abstinence.
Hence, individual stances in the Prohibition debate were very much determined by whether one believed it was necessary to eliminate all consumption or to encourage moderate drinking. The support for a nationwide ban on the sale of alcohol in Britain and America alike was founded on the assumption that moderation was insufficient to solving the problems of drunkenness and alcoholism in society.
Indeed, recent discussions on alcohol policy in Britain have uncovered renewed tensions between these two assumptions. In 2016, in response to a new set of studies that tied moderate drinking to several cancers, the official UK guidelines on alcohol consumption were lowered to a meagre 14 units a week (equivalent to 7 pints of low-strength beer) for both men and women. In light of the new evidence, the Chief Medical Officer for England declared that ‘drinking any level of alcohol carries a health risk to anyone’. Although moderation is still seen as an ideal, some observers have noted that the growing realisation that there is no actual safe level of drinking hint at the resurgence of total abstinence as a legitimate policy goal in the 21st century.
Ryosuke Yokoe is a historian of medicine at the University of Sheffield, studying the history of alcohol and disease in twentieth-century Britain. He is currently working as a research assistant under Professor Julie Gottlieb for the Wellcome Trust Seed Award project, Suicide, Society and Crisis. His twitter handle is @RyoYokoe1
 Quote from the Department of Health (2016), ‘New alcohol guidelines show increased risk of cancer’, https://www.gov.uk/government/news/new-alcohol-guidelines-show-increased-risk-of-cancer (last accessed 4 September 2016).