Beer School

Was Prohibition in America Successful?

Prohibition in America was the legal prevention of the manufacture, sales, and trade of alcohol in America. But did Prohibition succeed? Read on to learn about the failures of Prohibition in America, and what came out of it.

Was Prohibition in America Successful?

In 1920, more than a decade ago, Americans experienced their first dry season.

Screenshot 2022-06-10 155717


Led by pietistic Protestants, Prohibition was pushed in an effort to heal a society they saw beset by ills caused by drinking, such as violence, alcoholism, and political corruption. Screenshot 2022-06-10 155717Prohibition reformers and supporters, called “drys,” presented the movement as a means for political correction and a restoration of public morals.

Prohibition, outlined in the 18th Amendment of the Constitution stemming from the previous Volstead Act, banned the sale, manufacture, and trade of alcoholic beverages. However, the consumption of alcohol itself was not banned, and alcohol was still widely consumed to the end of Prohibition in 1933.

While we’re glad that Prohibition exists no more, how much did Prohibition actually deliver on its promises?


Consumption Rates

Prohibition started as a movement, which began as early as the beginning of the 1800s. Alcohol usage soared during this period. In fact, some modern estimates find that Americans in the 1800s drank 3 times as much alcohol as Americans do today.

It was around this time that people and politicians began to observe that alcohol was linked to moral ills, and a new wave of temperance reformers and Prohibition supporters arose.

But, while Prohibition was perceived as something of a final call for all alcoholic beverages to be turned in on Jan. 17, 1920, communities across America had already started implementing their own bans well before then. Even during the First World War, bans were implemented in an attempt to prevent grain shortages.

While no official data was noted during Prohibition, alcoholic consumption rates had already started dropping a century before its existence in law. Which brings us to the merry year of 1920.


Alcohol_Consumption_Rates_America
Source: National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA)

People Still Consumed Alcohol During Prohibition

The only way modern day researchers were really able to make an estimate on alcohol usage during Prohibition was to comb through criminal records and analyze how many people were arrested for alcohol related crimes. They were able to conclude that alcohol consumption did diminish down to one-third of the amount of alcohol consumed pre-Prohibition.

Screenshot 2022-06-10 162326This deficit was only a minor setback, as alcohol consumption was quick to make a comeback in 1921. It was likely that this deficit was a result of the economic recession following WW1. However, the Roaring 20s came roaring, and people in higher class societies were able to purchase alcohol illegally for their parties.


Was Prohibition Successful?

There is a general consensus among scholars that Prohibition was not only unsuccessful, but also harmed the economy.

Ironically, violence and crime soared during Prohibition. On top of that, states and the federal government came to rely on income taxes to supplement that taxes they lost from excise taxes in liquor sales. Breweries and distilleries close, restaurants sales saw a decrease, etc.

As for alcohol consumption itself, Prohibition only muted its use during the years it was in effect. In the decades following Prohibition, alcohol consumption remained relatively subdued. While there was no significant “boom” after 1933, the alcohol industry was able to stay afloat, stable enough for alcohol to make a roaring comeback by the late 1900s. As the 1970s approached, America was back to the consumption rates seen in the early 1900s.

As of 2017, it’s estimated that Americans consume 2.34 gallons of pure ethanol a year, almost more than the rates of alcohol consumption pre-Prohibition.


Prohibition’s Legacy in America

While Prohibition was all around a general failure, some of the American drinking culture now has its roots in Prohibition.

For example, Prohibition saw the move from drinking in public places such as saloons, to private drinking in the home.

Prohibition also saw the popularization of pale bland beers in America. While craft beer has had an explosive market growth in the past few decades, the majority of Americans still prefer light beers. In fact, the three best-selling beers in America are Bud Light, Coors Light and Miller Lite.

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An estimate suggested by economist Clark Warburton, suggested that consumption of wine and spirits may have actually grown during Prohibition, while beer sales decreased, because beer was harder to conceal.

Thus, when American started consuming beer again after Prohibition, the watered down beers were a big hit with the public, who had not experienced a full and malty beer since 1917.


Looking to celebrate the day that beer was finally legalized in America post-Prohibition? Check out some of these Prohibition-themed beers:

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