Americans Drinking More Now Than Just Before Prohibition

16 January 2020

One hundred years ago today, a ban on making and selling alcoholic drinks in the United States went into effect. The law, passed by Congress, became the 18th amendment to the U.S. Constitution on January 17, 1920.

This constitutional ban on alcohol lasted until 1933. It is a period known as "Prohibition."

FILE: A truck carries a load of beer kegs in a beer parade and demonstration held in Newark, N.J., Oct. 28, 1932. More than 20,000 people took part in the mass demand for repeal of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution. (AP Photo)
FILE: A truck carries a load of beer kegs in a beer parade and demonstration held in Newark, N.J., Oct. 28, 1932. More than 20,000 people took part in the mass demand for repeal of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution. (AP Photo)

But now, Americans are drinking more alcohol than when Prohibition became the law of the land. In fact, the rate has been rising for 20 years.

That information is based on federal health records. Those statistics confirm a rise in the amount of alcohol being consumed per person nationwide. They also show increases in emergency room visits, hospitalizations and deaths tied to drinking.

Not all the news is bad, however. Drinking among American teenagers is down. And there are signs that many people are taking alcohol seriously. For example, some are following the "Dry January" movement, deciding to not drink any alcohol during the month of January.

But overall, public health experts say the U.S. population has a drinking problem.

"Consumption has been going up. Harms (from alcohol) have been going up," said Tim Naimi, a doctor and alcohol researcher at Boston University. "And there's not been a policy response to match it."

Alcohol consumption rates

In 1934, one year after Prohibition ended, alcohol consumption was less than four liters a year per person. It has been up and down since then. The highest point was in the 1970s and 1980s. That is when U.S. alcohol consumption was over 10 liters per person.

Rates went down during the 1980s, with growing attention to deaths from drunken driving. In addition, Congress passed a law raising the drinking age to 21.

But rates began climbing in the 1990s.

Studies have linked extreme drinking to liver cancer, high blood pressure, stroke and heart disease. Drinking by pregnant women can lead to miscarriage, stillbirth or birth defects. And health officials say alcohol is partly to blame for as many as one-third of serious falls among older adults.

It is also a risk to others when people drive drunk or are involved in violence fueled by drinking. And research suggests that more than half of the alcohol sold in the United States is consumed during times of binge drinking. That is when people consume many alcoholic drinks in a short period of time.

More than 88,000 Americans die each year from too much drinking. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that number is higher than the opioid-related deaths reported in the current drug overdose crisis.

Alcohol-related deaths

This month, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism released a separate study on alcohol-related deaths. Researchers examined death certificates — documents that list cause of death — from over 20 years to search for links to alcohol. The numbers were lower, at a little under 73,000, in 2017. The researchers said death certificates can be incomplete, and their number is likely lower than the real number.

Other researchers said the more important finding was that the number of alcohol-related deaths had doubled since 1999 and the death rate had risen 50 percent.

Aaron White was the study's lead researcher. He said some or much of that increase may be related to the increasingly deadly drugs used in the opioid epidemic. This is because many people drink while taking drugs.

Men make up about three-fourths of alcohol-related deaths. But drinking among women — especially binge drinking — has been a major driver of the increases in alcohol statistics.

White's study found that the female death rate jumped 85 percent, while the male rate rose about half that. The highest alcohol-related death rates for women were among those ages 55 to 74, the study found. But increases were also noted in younger women.

Other research has found that binge drinking is increasing most among women.

I'm Bryan Lynn.

And I'm Anne Ball.

The Associated Press reported this story. Anne Ball adapted the story for VOA Learning English.

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Words in This Story

alcoholic – adj. of, containing or caused by alcohol

per – preposition. for each

consume – v. to eat or drink something

overall – adv. with everyone or everything included

statistic - n.a number that represents a piece of information (such as information about how often something is done, how common something is, etc.)

response - n. something that is said or written as an answer to something

teenager - n. someone who is between 13 and 19 years old

match – v. to go well with someone or something

stillbirth – n. the birth of a dead baby

defect – n. a problem or fault that makes something or someone not perfect

opioid – n. a chemical drug that had addictive properties and physical effects