Alcohol in America

Perhaps nothing brings Americans together like alcohol. Sports game? Beer. Weddings and Christmas parties? Champagne. Romantic evening? Wine. Birthday party? Take your pick. For a country founded by Puritans and a country that once went so far as to ban anything to do with alcohol for more than 10 years, the American infatuation with – and fear of – liquor is fascinating. Even as millions of people fall prey to the siren song of addiction and dependence, billions of dollars are collected in revenue and taxes. Such is the complex and nebulous state of alcohol in America.

The Rise and Fall of Prohibition

One of America’s Founding Fathers was also one of the country’s most prominent doctors of his day. Considered the “father of American psychiatry,” Benjamin Rush authored a seminal – and, at the time, unprecedented – work on the negative effects of alcohol.[1] Published in 1784, his book, An Inquiry into the Effects of Ardent Spirits Upon the Human Body and Mind, was the spark that lit the fire of the Temperance Movement, an umbrella term for a number of organizations that had come to see alcohol as having an evil and pervasive influence on the general public.[2] While Rush himself favored moderation and regulation of alcohol, his work proved so popular and influential that a large swath of Americans had lost their taste for alcohol in the early days of the 1900s.[3] From this discontentment arose groups like the Anti-Saloon League, which successfully lobbied the U.S. Congress to pass the 18th Amendment to the Constitution in 1917.

Better known as “Prohibition,” the 18th Amendment criminalized the production, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages in the United States (private consumption of pre-existing stocks of liquor was not covered by the amendment).[4] President Herbert Hoover referred to Prohibition as “a great social and economic experiment, noble in motive and far-reaching in purpose.”[5]While the ratification and enforcement of the 18th Amendment resulted in an initial downturn of alcohol-related crime,[6] the new laws proved immensely unpopular almost overnight. Recognizing that the demand of alcohol skyrocketed, illegal distilleries and underground bars (the legendary “speakeasies”) made a fortune. Organized crime syndicates had no qualms about using violence and intimidation to assume responsibility for the running of America’s newest and most lucrative black market. Law enforcement officials, who either opposed the passage of the 18th Amendment or who were simply in the pocket of the mobsters they were supposed to pursue, turned a blind eye to the surge of gangs and speakeasies.[7] Citizens who were otherwise completely law-abiding resorted to concocting cheap, crude, and potentially harmful alcohol in their own homes (giving rise to the term “bathtub gin”).

John D. Rockefeller, Jr., the legendary businessman and industrial pioneer, had contributed as much as $700,000 to the Anti-Saloon League, but later renounced his support of Prohibition because of the damage it had caused across the country. In a letter published in The New York TimesRockefeller – a lifelong teetotaler – wrote: “[D]rinking generally has increased […] a vast army of lawbreakers has been recruited and financed on a colossal scale […] many of our best citizens, piqued at what they regarded as an infringement of their private rights, have openly and unabashedly disregarded the Eighteenth Amendment […] respect for all law has been greatly lessened; crime has increased to an unprecedented degree.”[8]

‘I Think This Would Be a Good Time for a Beer’

By the early 1930s, the tide had turned against Prohibition enough for it to be a political platform for the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate, Franklin D. Roosevelt.[9] After President Roosevelt signed legislation that legalized the sale of beer with an alcohol content of 3.2 percent (a precursor of what was to come), Roosevelt famously quipped, “I think this would be a good time for a beer.”[10]

In 1933, Congress ratified the 21st Amendment to the Constitution, which formally repealed the 18th Amendment and legalized the production, transportation, and sale of alcohol within the United States.[11]

‘An Effective and Uniform System for Controlling Liquor’

The 21st Amendment wasn’t a case of Congress merely turning the clock back to the good old days. Having noted how the illegal alcohol industry flourished without regulation, the federal government saw the potential of getting into the game themselves.

Mindful, however, of the unpopularity of the laws of Prohibition that gave police and federal agents far-reaching powers of search and seizure, the government sought to preserve the integrity of states’ prerogatives when it came to how individual counties managed their alcohol. In 2013, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals clarified the point of the Twenty-first Amendment:

“[…] to allow States to maintain an effective and uniform system for controlling liquor by regulating its transportation, importation, and use.”[12]

Regulating Alcohol

The regulation of the transportation, importation, and use of alcohol is conducted through the issuance of government licenses, which specify the precise logistics of when and where sales of alcohol can take place. State and county jurisdictions may have their own laws concerning alcohol transactions that exist simultaneously with federal standards.[13]

Other regulation comes in the form of taxation. In 2007, the federal government made $5.6 billion in alcohol tax revenues.[14] The ideas behind these regulatory controls are not merely to provide a source of revenue for the government, but to also discourage excessive and uncontrolled production of alcoholic beverages.[15] As Cornell University explains, “health and […] public concerns” have driven the extensive and meticulous regulation, at all governmental levels, of alcohol since the repeal of Prohibition.[16]

Regulation is enforced by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (which is responsible for the investigation and prevention of unlawful alcohol manufacture and smuggling), and the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (which oversees the collection of federal tax revenue and ensures that the products meet advertising, marketing, and labeling laws).[17]

‘By the Shine of the Moon’

Alcohol enjoys an untouchable level of acceptance and popularity in America, with even President Barack Obama hosting a “beer summit” at the White House in 2009.[18] Nonetheless, there still exists a thriving market for illegally produced alcohol in the United States.

“Moonshine,” so called because of the days when alcohol was distilled under cover of darkness (or by the shine of the moon), was one of the names given to alcohol in the Prohibition era. The name persists today, still referring to alcohol that is produced and sold beyond the regulatory boundaries imposed by the government. In a report published by The Economist, moonshining costs the state of Virginia approximately $20 million in alcohol tax revenue every year.[19]

While it is not illegal for private citizens to brew their own beer and wine,[20] the US government is of the opinion that the moonshine produced in illegal distilleries is toxic. Slate magazine reports that “a homemade still might consist of car radiators or pipes,” exposing drinkers to a significant risk of lead poisoning.[21] For these reasons, creating and selling moonshine is still a felony in the United States.[22]

Nonetheless, in the same way that alcohol never really went away under Prohibition, moonshine’s popularity in the United States – notwithstanding its illegal status[23] – is such that it is starting to make its way into mainstream culture. The Discovery reality TV show Moonshiners presents a dramatization of the lives of moonshiners plying their trade and avoiding the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Bureau of Law Enforcement.[24] According to TIME magazine, a handful of states legalized the production and distribution of moonshine as a way to boost their respective economies. Tennessee became the first state to legalize moonshine in 2010,[25] and a partner in one of the state’s moonshine distilleries pointed to the Moonshiners TV show as a sign that American people, and their governments, are embracing the “folklore of illegal whiskey.”[26]

“For many people,” writes Rice and Bread Magazine in talking about the mystique of moonshine, “it’s a way of life and part of their culture.”[27]

Not one to miss an opportunity, big whiskey companies got into the act, with Jack Daniels and Jim Beam producing their own brands of moonshine.[28] Some legal distilleries have even chosen to sell their products in Walmart.[29] The tide is in such a process of turning that Reason magazine says “moonshine” no longer refers to illegally distilled spirits, but simply any high-proof distilled spirit.[30]

The Drinking Demographic

Despite the brief flirtation with Prohibition, alcohol is very much a part of American culture. In 2012, Gallup summarized a poll that found more than 66 percent of Americans are drinkers by concluding, “Drinking is commonplace in the US.”[31] Bloomberg Businessweek suggests consumer confidence in an energized economy is behind the increase in alcohol consumption from January 2013 to January 2014: sales of beer from retailers increased by 6.75 percent; spirits by 8.4 percent; and wine by 3.3 percent.[32] Writes Bloomberg, “US spending on alcohol has grown during every quarter over the last four years.” And Forbes magazine agrees: In 2011, beverage manufacturing was nearing 10 percent growth after experiencing less than one percent growth just two years prior; and beer, wine and liquor stores were growing at their fastest rate since 2007.[33]

“Other than going to the doctor,” an analyst told CNN, “alcohol is another need to have.”[34]

Perhaps the demographic in which alcohol enjoys the most popularity is among college students. “The excessive use of alcohol,” says The Quinnipiac Chronicle, “has become a key ingredient” on college and university campuses across the country. A study published in the Journal of Drug Education revealed that higher education graduates who drink heavily believe that alcohol is an integral part of their roles as students.[35] There is a cultural expectation that drinking – along with other risky behavior like experimenting with drugs and engaging in promiscuous sexual activity – “is just part of the college experience.”[36]

The Chronicle quoted figures by Alcohol 101 Plus that showed 84 percent of students consumed alcohol a year prior to taking the survey, and 72 percent consumed alcohol within a month of taking the survey. The findings echo the statistics in a 2012 report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration: 87.6 people under the age of 18 drank at least once in their lifetime, and 53.3 percent of people reported drinking in the month prior to answering the question.[37] And they further echo a report from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism that shows more than 80 percent of college students drink on campus.[38]

Quinnipiac University’s Chief of Public Safety told the Chronicle that although “usually alcohol plays a part” in reports of vandalism or assaults on campus, that there is no “beer police.”[39] The sentiment is echoed in other universities as well: Washington University “embraces alcohol as a social lubricant […] and a way to keep drinking safe.”[40] Schools have transitioned from cracking down on alcohol-fueled parties to offering amnesty policies for students who report cases of suspected alcohol abuse or poisoning.[41]

As Forbes magazine puts it, alcohol is both “dangerous and politically loaded.”[42]

The Power of Big Alcohol

College students are not the only group of people celebrating America’s uneasy love affair with alcohol. For every frat party, graduation party, birthday party, wedding, baseball game, football game, and happy hour, the alcohol industry adds another dollar to its coffers. In 2010, the industry was responsible for over $400 billion in economic activity and $90 billion in wages, and it created 3.9 million jobs for workers. That same year, the beverage industry directly contributed $21 billion to state and local revenues.[43]But there is another story behind those impressive numbers. According to Gawker, the biggest consumers of alcohol in America are not exuberant college students or sports fans in the mood to celebrate (or commiserate), but alcoholics.[44] Figures published in the Washington Post say that 10 percent of the country’s drinkers account for more than half of the alcohol consumed in a given year.[45]

One might expect there to be some kind of backlash against the alcohol industry in the United States, due to the reality that the industry’s best customer is a group of people whose lives are being ruined because of their diligent patronage. However, when compared to the impositions placed on “Big Tobacco” (such as multimillion dollar legal settlements, restrictions on advertising, and publication of confidential records and data), “Big Alcohol” has largely gone unscathed.[46] Is it a sign that alcohol in America is untouchable?

  • Alcohol can shorten peoples’ lives by an average of 30 years.[49]
  • Over 10 percent of children in America live with a parent who has some form of alcohol dependency.[50]
If so, that comes at a very high price:
  • At 88,000 deaths every year, alcohol-related fatalities are the third most preventable cause of death in America.[47]
  • “Excessive alcohol consumption,” or the binge drinking problems that colleges and universities are trying to avoid, ran up a national bill of $223.5 billion in 2006 ($746 per person).[48]
  • About 17 million adults and 855,000 adolescents had some form of alcohol dependency in 2012.
  • In 2012, driving fatalities due to alcohol impairment numbered at 10,322.

Happy Hour in America

The Fix writes that despite the near-universal acceptance of alcohol in American society today, there still exists a deliberate ignorance of how deeply alcohol flows in America’s veins.[51] This manifests in what critics call “alcohol abstinence education,” where children are “protected” from alcohol until they are of legal drinking age (21 in the United States).[52] By comparison, “alcohol education that promotes moderation is demonstrably more effective,” says one school of thought. Cultures that help their youth via developing a “functional relationship with alcohol through controlled use” have fewer problems than those who restrict its use – like the United States.[53]

This relegation of alcohol to a “footnote to our history,” argues The Fix, might explain some of the reasons why alcohol is still so strongly associated with numerous legal and medical crises: crime, emergency room visits, abuse, etc.

That also might explain why a number of states and counties chose to continue enforcing Prohibition within their boundaries, even after the passage of the 21st Amendment. It was only in 1966, 33 years after the repeal of the 18th Amendment, that Mississippi approved the sale and production of alcohol.[54] In 2012, there were still 200 “dry” counties in America.[55]

That little bit of trivia hints at the complicated relationship America enjoys with its alcohol. On the one hand, there is an entrenched drinking culture around college campuses, spring break, parties, and ladies’ nights at bars. As a society, writes Washington City Paper, Americans make alcohol readily available: everything from billboards to commercials, restaurants to convenience stores screams, “Consume alcohol.”[56] On the other, conservative religious groups still champion the cause of “[Serving] Jesus, not alcohol,”[57] and American drinking culture has been described as everything from “immature” to “sexist.”[58]

The dichotomy may never be successfully resolved; and as long as the bars still offer happy hour, many Americans may just continue drinking.


[1] “Dr. Benjamin Rush.” (n.d.) University of Pennsylvania Health System. Accessed December 24, 2014.

[2] “Prohibition: Roots of Prohibition.” (n.d.) PBS. Accessed December 25, 2014.

[3] “Benjamin Rush’s Educational Campaign Against Hard Drinking.” (February 1993). American Journal of Public Health. Accessed December 25, 2014.

[4] The Constitution of the United States: Amendments 11-27.” (n.d.) National Archives and Records Administration. Accessed December 25, 2014.

[5] “Prohibition.” (n.d.) Crime Museum. Accessed December 25, 2014.

[6] “Prohibition and Its Effects.” (n.d.) The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Accessed December 25, 2014.

[7] “Prohibition and the Rise of the American Gangster.” (n.d.) The National Archives. Accessed December 10, 2014.

[8] “How Not to Legalize a Drug.” (July 2014). Reason. Accessed December 11, 2014.

[9] “Repeal of Prohibition.” (n.d.) Sociology Department, State University of New York, Potsdam. Accessed December 24, 2014.

[10] “The Real Reason for FDR’s Popularity.” (October 2010). Mises Institute. Accessed December 25, 2014.

[11] “The Constitution of the United States: Amendments 11-27.” (n.d.) National Archives and Records Administration. Accessed December 10, 2014.

[12] “8th Circuit Court of Appeals Decision in Southern Wine and Spirits Case.” (September 2013). American Beverage Licenses. Accessed December 11, 2014.

[13] “Alcohol Beverage Authorities in United States, Canada and Puerto Rico.” (n.d.) Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. Accessed December 25, 2014.

[14] “How Much is the Government Making Off of Alcohol?” (July 2010). TurboTax. Accessed December 11, 2014.

[15] “Historical Background of Alcohol in the United States.” (n.d.) The Free Dictionary. Accessed December 11, 2014.

[16] “Alcohol, Tobacco and Controlled Substances: An Overview.” (n.d.) Cornell University Law School. Accessed December 25, 2014.

[17] “About Us – What We Do.” (December 2014). Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. Accessed December 25, 2014.

[18] “The White House “Beer Summit”.” (July 2009). Accessed December 25, 2014.

[19] “Moonshine: Lightning Strikes.” (April 2009). The Economist. Accessed December 11, 2014.

[20] “Statues.” (n.d.) American Homebrewers Association. Accessed December 25, 2014.

[21] “Why is it Against the Law to Make Moonshine?” (October 2007). Slate. Accessed December 25, 2014.

[22] “Sacramento Man Arrested for Making Moonshine.” (September 2014). Fox40. Accessed December 25, 2014.

[23] “Making Moonshine at Home is on the Rise. But It’s Still Illegal.” (January 2014). NPR. Accessed December 25, 2014.

[24] “Virginia Authorities Claim “Moonshiners” Doesn’t Show Illegal Moonshining.” (December 2011). FOX News. Accessed December 25, 2014.

[25] “Moonshine and the Law.” (2011). Tennessee Department of State. Accessed December 25, 2014.

[26] “Legal Moonshine Growing Industry in East Tennessee.” (May 2013). Knoxville News Sentinel. Accessed December 25, 2014.

[27] “The True Cost of Legalizing Moonshine.” (August 2014). Rice and Bread Magazine. Accessed December 25, 2014.

[28] “Moonshine is Growing in the U.S., and Big Whiskey Wants a Taste.” (May 2013). TIME magazine. Accessed December 11, 2014.

[29] “Chattanooga Whiskey Founders to Launch Freedom Moonshine in May.” (April 2014). Times Free Press. Accessed December 25, 2014.

[30] “Get Drunk the Liberty-Loving Way With “Freedom Moonshine”.” (April 2014). Reason. Accessed December 25, 2014.

[31] “Majority in U.S. Drink Alcohol, Averaging Four Drinks a Week.” (August 2012). Gallup. Accessed December 11, 2014.

[32] “An Intoxicating New Year: America’s Alcohol Sales on the Rise.” (February 2014). Bloomberg Businessweek. Accessed December 11, 2014.

[33] “2011: The Year of … Alcohol? Strong Growth in Alcohol-Related Industries.” (July 2011). Forbes. Accessed December 25, 2014.

[34] “Alcohol Sales Thrive in Hard Times.” (June 2011). CNN. Accessed December 25, 2014.

[35] “Alcohol Abuse as a Rite of Passage: The Effect of Beliefs About Alcohol and the College Experience on Undergraduates’ Drinking Behaviors.” (2006). Journal of Drug Education. Accessed December 12, 2014.

[36] “Cheap Drinks and Risk-Taking Fuel College Drinking Culture.” (September 2014). NPR. Accessed December 25, 2014.

[37] “2012 Tables: Tobacco Product and Alcohol Use.” (n.d.) Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Accessed December 12, 2014.

[38] “College Drinking.” (n.d.) National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Accessed December 25, 2014.

[39] “The Unofficial College Culture: Alcohol Considered a “Rite of Passage.” (March 2013). The Quinnipiac Chronicle. Accessed December 12, 2014.

[40] “A British Perspective on American Drinking Culture.” (October 2012). Student Life. Accessed December 25, 2014.

[41] “Schools Try New Policies to Battle College Drinking.” (August 2013). Washington Post. Accessed December 25, 2014.

[42] “The New United States of Booze.” (February 2013). Forbes. Accessed December 12, 2014.

[43] “Economic Contributions of the Distilled Spirits Industry.” (n.d.) Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. Accessed December 12, 2014.

[44] “Who Drives the Alcohol Industry?” Alcoholics.” (September 2014). Gawker. Accessed December 12, 2014.

[45] “Think You Drink A Lot? This Chart Will Tell You.” (September 2014). Washington Post. Accessed December 25, 2014.

[46] “Concessions, Admissions, Money: Florida Wins Big From Big Tobacco.” (August 1997). Sun Sentinel. Accessed December 12, 2014.

[47] “CDC – Fact-Sheets – Alcohol Use and Health.” (August 2014). Centers for Disease Control. Accessed December 12, 2014.

[48] “CDC Features – Excessive Drinking Costs U.S. $223.5 billion.” (April 2014). Centers for Disease Control. Accessed December 12, 2014.

[49] “Alcohol Linked to 75,000 US Deaths a Year.” (June 2005). NBC News. Accessed December 25, 2014.

[50] “Alcohol Facts and Statistics.” (n.d.) National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Accessed December 12, 2014.

[51] “How Alcohol Has Steered American History.” (May 2011). The Fix. Accessed December 12, 2014.

[52] “References.” (n.d.) Sociology Department, State University of New York Potsdam. Accessed December 25, 2014.

[53] “Andrew Golub on Manuella Adrian’s “Can Failure Carefully Observed Become a Springboard to Success?”” (November 2012). Substance Use & Misuse. Accessed December 25, 2014.

[54] “The End of U.S. Prohibition: A Case Study of Mississippi.” (June 1996). Highbeam Business. Accessed December 11, 2014.

[55] “These Are The Places in America Where Alcohol is Still Banned.” (March 2012). io9. Accessed December 11, 2014.

[56] “Can America Overcome a Childish Drinking Culture?” (November 2010). Washington City Paper. Accessed December 25, 2014.

[57] “The Slow Death of Prohibition.” (March 2012). BBC News. Accessed December 12, 2014.

[58] “Drinking and Sexual Assault: America’s Booze Culture is Sexist.” (September 2013). Salon. Accessed December 25, 2014.

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