The new Ken Burns and Lynn Novick documentary Prohibition is a five-and-a-half-hour missed opportunity to demonstrate why bans on substances are doomed from the start. Fortunately, for those who want to understand the irresistible lure of all types of prohibitions, there is Christopher Snowdon's The Art of Suppression: Pleasure, Panic and Prohibition Since 1800. Although Snowdon's comprehensive history will never reach as many people as the PBS series, The Art of Suppression makes the case that Burns seems to go out of his way to avoid: that prohibition of products that people desire, whether alcohol a century ago or Ecstasy today, is bound to fail miserably.
Deploying a colorful cast of characters, Snowdon, a British journalist whose first book, Velvet Glove, Iron Fist (2009), documented the history of anti-tobacco campaigns, tells the story of prohibition's broader context. He brings to the task the stinging humor reminiscent of H.L. Mencken, whom he quotes in describing one of the book's central villains, the Anti-Saloon League lawyer Wayne Bidwell Wheeler: "He was born with a roaring voice, and it had the trick of inflaming half-wits." Wheeler was a prototypical activist, Snowdon says, "the undisputed master of pressure politics…no one was more skillful or less scrupulous in applying pressure to wavering politicians."
Just as it is today, Ohio was a battleground state in the early 1900s, when Wheeler targeted popular Republican Gov. Myron T. Herrick, who had the audacity to challenge provisions of a prohibitionist Anti-Saloon League bill. Wheeler, Snowdon writes, held hundreds of dry rallies in favor of Herrick's opponent and "scurrilously accused Herrick of being in the pocket of the drinks industry." Seeking to make an example of the governor, Wheeler marshaled tens of thousands of churchgoers, who flooded into the polls and bounced Herrick out of office.
The result? Practical political hypocrisy on the issue of alcohol. Wheeler's effort, Snowdon explains, was "a bleak warning to wet politicians that it was safest to drink in private and support prohibition in public.…Politicians knew that they could placate their tormentors by supporting dry laws, but they also knew they could placate drinkers by failing to enforce them."
The wet/dry debate was a key issue in American politics for the quarter centuries before and after 1900. Issues as varied as women's suffrage, race relations, urban vs. rural life, and religious tensions all played out in the context of alcohol prohibition.
Wheeler's mad female counterpart was known as "Christ's bulldog," the "hatchet-wielding vigilante" Carrie Amelia Moore, whose 1877 marriage of convenience to David Nation gave her a "striking name that she viewed as a sign of providence." Arriving in officially dry Wichita, Kansas, on January 21, 1901, Carrie A. Nation assumed leadership of the militant wing of the so-called temperance movement, declaring loudly, "Men of Wichita, this is the right arm of God and I am destined to wreck every saloon in your city!" Together with three Woman's Christian Temperance Union colleagues, Snowdon writes, "she set to work on two 'murder shops' with rocks, iron rods and hatchets, only stopping when the owner of the second saloon put a revolver to her head." Vandalizing illegal saloons didn't get Nation arrested, but attacking a policeman in a hotel lobby eventually did. "Showing considerable leniency, the chief of police released the teetotal delinquent on bail on the condition that she smash no more saloons until noon the following day. Nation's first act as a free woman was to stand on the steps of the police station and inform the waiting crowd that she would recommence her reign of terror as soon as the clock struck twelve." As it turned out, she could not wait even that long.
Nation, who was widely believed to suffer from mental illness, may not have been a typical prohibitionist, but her antics made her one of the more conspicuous ones. Her visibility allowed outlets such as The New York Times to position themselves as moderate by condemning her tactics but not her underlying stance.
Today's prohibitionists are less colorful but no less determined. Consider the sad story of psychopharmacologist David Nutt's brief term as chairman of the British Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. Shortly after he was appointed to the position in May 2008, the Sun reported that Nutt thought Ecstasy and LSD should be removed from the legal category ostensibly reserved for the most dangerous drugs, kicking off a Fleet Street frenzy.
Instead of backing down, Nutt doubled down. In a satirical article published by the Journal of Psychopharmacology in January 2009, he analyzed "an addiction called 'Equasy' that kills ten people a year, causes brain damage and has been linked to the early onset of Parkinson's disease." Nut added that Equasy "releases endorphins, can create dependence and is responsible for over 100 road traffic accidents every year."
Had Nutt not revealed that Equasy was simply the time-honored sport of horseback riding, activists certainly would have rushed to introduce a ban. Nutt pointed out that since Equasy causes acute harm to one out of 350 riders, it is far riskier than Ecstasy, for which the fraction is one out of 10,000. His point, of course, was that prohibition has less to do with risk than with the importance society attaches to a risky activity. As Snowdon puts it, "If the cultural baggage is put to one side, and activities are assessed on the basis of mortality rather than morality, there are glaring inconsistencies in the way laws deal with different hazards." In October 2009, British Home Secretary Alan Johnson fired Nutt for failing to recognize that "his role is to advise rather than criticise."
While The Art of Suppression does not include a chapter on marijuana legalization, Snowdon leaves no doubt about his position on the issue. "Legal highs may not be as good as the real thing," he writes, "and they are often more dangerous, but at least users don't have to worry about being arrested."
Snowdon describes a cycle in which so-called "killer drugs" receive an inordinate amount of tabloid media attention, driving up consumer interest until the substance is finally banned based on sensationalistic claims about its dangers. Yet as soon as one chemical is banned, a newer one—often more dangerous—is created to elude the ban. "In the restless pursuit of hedonistic diversions," Snowdon writes, "human beings will try almost any substance if more appealing avenues of pleasure are closed off."
In addition to sardonic humor, Snowdon offers new reporting on how distorted science and unfounded health claims are driving lesser-known prohibitions in the modern world, such as the 1986 European ban on all oral tobacco products, including Swedish snus. Snowdon documents in detail how a 2003 scientific report funded by the European Commission and the Swedish National Institute of Public Health, intended to provide legal and scientific justification for the ban, was altered after leaving the hands of the scientists who wrote it. Among the many questionable editorial changes in the report was one that glossed over the fact that snus, unlike less refined oral tobacco products, does not cause oral cancer. While the original version said "there can be no doubt that the current ban on oral tobacco is highly arbitrary," that phrase was missing from the published report.
In response to accumulating evidence supporting the use of snus as a harm-reducing alternative to cigarettes, supporters of the E.U. ban have become more brazen. Based on information from Asa Lundquist, the tobacco control manager for the Swedish National Institute of Public Health, the Swedish press reported that snus (which remains legal in Sweden) causes impotence and infertility. Luckily, Swedes, who have suffered through decades of similar scares, insisted on seeing the study behind the allegations. As it turns out, the scare itself was impotent. The supposed source, the Karolinska Institute, admitted "there is no such study." Rather, "we have a hypothesis and plan to conduct a study among snus users after the new year."
Here in the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration is considering whether to exercise its authority to ban menthol cigarettes, even though studies repeatedly have found that they are no more harmful than non- mentholated cigarettes. Drunk with power, regulators and those encouraging them are using catchy slogans such as "Menthol: it helps the poison go down easier."
Prohibitionists ignore or belittle concerns that a ban on menthol cigarettes would turn citizens into criminals, increase unregulated youth access to cigarettes, and even encourage people to make their own mentholated cigarettes (all it takes is a regular cigarette, a cough drop, and a ziplock bag).
It is hard to miss the similarities between current prohibition campaigns and their historical predecessors. The Woman's Christian Temperance Union's "stated desire was to 'reform, so far as possible, by religious, ethical, and scientific means the drinking classes.' " Likewise today, says Snowdon, self-righteous activists and their allies in government do not seek to improve public health by following the dictates of science but rather use pseudoscientific arguments and "subtle deceit" to advance laws that dictate how we live.
It is easy now, as Ken Burns has masterfully done, to ridicule the prohibition of alcohol. But Snowdon does the heavy lifting of catching modern-day Carrie Nations in the act. Despite a long history of failure, the public always seems ready to enlist in prohibitionist campaigns, perhaps believing, as Snowdon puts it, that "utopia is only ever one ban away."
Jeff Stier is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research in Washington, D.C.