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Folding@home Statistics
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How Prohibition Increases the Harm It Tries to Reduce
    #2117870 - 11/17/03 08:08 PM (14 years, 6 months ago)

Forbidden Fruit: How Prohibition Increases the Harm It Tries to Reduce

By Dwight Filley*

"Men will pursue their interests. It is as easy to change human nature as to oppose the strong current of selfish passions. A wise legislator will gently divert the channel, and direct it, if possible, to the public good." --Alexander Hamilton


Various activities, such as drinking alcohol, smoking tobacco, gambling, etc., have been prohibited by the state at various times. The motivation has been twofold: first to help people lead "good" lives (in the opinion of the lawmakers) by keeping them from temptation, and second, because it is felt that such behaviors harm the society as a whole.

Lawmakers assume that if some activity deemed to be harmful is prohibited, the harm to society will decrease. (After all, that is why the laws are passed.) This paper will look at the evidence for such an assumption.

Thesis: Since reducing harmful behavior is difficult, government often resorts to prohibiting all aspects of the behavior, both harmful and benign. Such prohibition often increases, rather than decreases the harmful behavior. To point out the flaws of prohibition is not to endorse the underlying behavior.

In reviewing the literature on the effects of prohibitory laws, a curious pattern emerges. While the conventional wisdom clearly holds that the law will have the desired effect, and lawmakers act according to such wisdom, studies of the effect of the laws often show the opposite effect: the behavior the laws were designed to inhibit has been encouraged instead.

It is far beyond the scope of this paper to document why this is so. Human nature is too complex. Suffice it to say that there may be a perverse side of human nature that simply enjoys doing what is forbidden for the thrill of breaking the rules. Alternatively, people may simply resent being told what to do, preferring to be asked or persuaded.

Or, it may be that people resent living under laws that restrict non-abusers in an attempt to stop the abusers. It?s similar to the obvious injustice of the elementary teacher who says, "Since I heard that one of you went out of bounds during recess, none of you can have recess." In situations like this, if a few people abuse their freedom, a law is passed taking away everyone?s freedom. It may be that this intrinsic injustice causes perverse reactions.

Finally, the possibility exists that when scarce police and court resources are diverted toward the prevention of the non-abusive forms of behavior, there are fewer resources remaining to preventing the abusive behavior. There is ample evidence that arresting, conviction and punishing a wrongdoer does reduce harmful behavior. However, prohibiting all related behavior, in an attempt to reduce the harmful portion, is far more problematical and often counterproductive.

If laws have the opposite effect that what was intended, this has profound ramifications for policy makers. The following sections examine various attempts to use prohibition to reduce harmful activity. In these cases prohibition caused the opposite effect.

Teen Smoking

There has been a long history of attempts to prohibit cigarettes. The states of Washington, North Dakota, Iowa and Tennessee banned the sale of cigarettes in the 1890s, but the laws were generally ignored. Although there does not seem to be good data, there is some evidence that cigarette use declined between 1896 and 1901, but then increased until the prohibitions were repealed between 1911 and 1922. Cigarette sales continued to climb in the United States until 1965.

After World War Two, cigarettes were in extremely short supply in Germany, due to rationing and the generally chaotic economic conditions. It was a de facto prohibition, which gave German society a taste of what actual cigarette prohibition would be like. As a result of a debate in the German Parliament in 1974, that government concluded that:

To outlaw production and trade would not turn smokers into non-smokers. It would, on the contrary, create a situation much like the one after the last war, when--in spite of the shortages--the number of smokers increased. There would certainly develop a black market, and the use of all sorts of ersatz substances would only raise the risks to the health of the users. Prohibition, therefore, is no solution.

More recently, the focus in the United States has shifted to warnings, restrictions and high taxes rather than prohibition. A notable exception has been the prohibition of the sale of cigarettes to minors. The conventional wisdom, of course, holds that such prohibitions will reduce teen smoking. All 50 states prohibit cigarette sales to minors, but a study reported in the New England Journal of Medicine finds that such laws are rarely enforced. To determine if stronger enforcement efforts would reduce teen smoking, the study went on to compare six Massachusetts towns, three with stepped up enforcement measures and three as controls. Quoting from the study:

The rate of current tobacco use [among teens] rose in the intervention communities but remained stable in controls, the reverse of what would have been expected; however this difference was of borderline significance (P=0.05).

The authors speculated that teens found it easy to find vendors willing to sell to them in spite of increased enforcement, and found it easy to get cigarettes from adults or buy them in neighboring towns. Vending machines offer another obvious source.

It should be noted that two previous studies, did find that teenage smoking went down when enforcement compliance reached 90 percent. (When 90 percent of minor?s attempts to purchase tobacco failed.) However, these studies failed to look at controls. As it happened, teen smoking was declining generally during the period of the study, so it was impossible to determine if the enforcement efforts or the general decline caused the results reported. The later, more careful study cited above, strongly suggests it was the latter.

Again from the study:

Reducing young people?s access to tobacco has become a cornerstone of public policy regarding tobacco control in this decade. A growing number of federal, state, and local laws and regulations are intended to accomplish this goal. This activity has occurred in the absence of evidence clearly supporting its efficacy, and therefore there has been debate in the public health community about the wisdom of the current focus on reducing access.

Cigarette use has been declining in America since 1965, apparently due in part to information campaigns on the health effects of smoking. However, teen use of cigarettes has risen lately. According to Reason magazine, "The share of teenagers reporting past-month use of cigarettes rose from 18.4 percent in 1992 to 20.2 percent in 1995." This is not by itself proof of the counterproductivity of prohibition, but it is disturbing.

Prohibition of cigarettes did not work in the 1890s, and prohibition of cigarettes to teens apparently is not working in the 1990s. There is may even be a marginal reverse effect, which should, at the least, get lawmakers? attention.

Teen Drinking

Of course, attempts to prohibit alcohol have also had a long history, with equally mixed results. The Great Experiment, as the 18th Amendment is known, apparently did succeed in reducing overall alcohol consumption in the US, but as researchers Duke and Gross conclude:

...if consumption of alcohol was reduced, it wasn?t by much; the costs of enforcement, in money, corruption, crime, disrespect for the law, alcohol and related poisonings far exceeded, by virtually anyone?s measurements, the tiny gains in alcohol control.

Recent research has found there are benefits from moderate alcohol consumption, primarily the reduced risk of heart attack, so for this and other reasons, calls to prohibit alcohol are rarely heard today. However, as with cigarettes, prohibition of sales to minors is common. The most obvious justification for such prohibition is teen drunk driving. Again, the conventional wisdom is that reduced access to alcohol will reduce teen drunk driving. As with teen smoking, a general decline in driving fatalities coincided with the various states raising the drinking age to 21. Again, advocates of prohibition were quick to credit the new laws, and a large study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety was used to generate estimates of between 730 and 2,500 lives saved per year in America if drinking ages were raised to 21. Again, this study ignored the real possibility that the change had no effect. And again, a more careful study by Mike Males comparing states that raised their drinking ages with other states that did not over the same period, found that:

States that did not raise their MLPA?s [Minimum Legal Purchase Age] during the 1976-81 period experienced a slightly larger decrease in fatal crashes among drivers under twenty-one years of age than did those states that did raise their MLPA?s. The difference is not large enough to be called significant, but it does suggest that raised drinking ages are not associated with any net reductions in fatal crashes by young drivers.

Males goes on to note "...the utter failure of legislative efforts to ban or control teenage drinking." He adds that drinking is a learned behavior, somewhat like driving or the skills used in one?s occupation. To absolutely prohibit a possibly dangerous activity is a poor way to provide training in that activity, particularly when such efforts only force teens to "practice" their new skill in secret, among other unskilled beginners.

This is perhaps an appropriate place to note that in the literature of prohibition, there seems to be a good deal of sloppy research. It is carried out with the no doubt well-intentioned aim of justifying an apparently basic human need to legislate so as to change the world to suit those who support the legislation.

Often, one finds what one is looking for.

Prohibiting Advertising

One means of reducing consumption of products deemed undesirable that is currently in vogue is to prohibit the advertisement of such products. In the US, the Clinton administration is pushing to outlaw advertising hard liquor on television, and tobacco ads are already banned from radio and television. However, economic theory points in the other direction.

A paper by Massimo Motta argues that advertising is of two basic sorts: informational and persuasive. Informational ads let buyers know about a new product, or about a new supplier of existing products. Such ads tend to drive down prices as buyers are helped in their comparison shopping.

On the other hand, persuasive ads generally attempt to woo buyers from one well-known brand to another. Liquor and cigarette ads tend to fall into this later category--well-known brands fighting for market share. These ads rarely mention price and focus on intangible benefits, such as quality of life, taste, "coolness" and so on. The Marlboro Man and Joe Camel never mention anything at all.

A ban on advertising tends to force competitors to compete on price, since they find it difficult to project their particular image without ads. At the same time a prohibition on advertising reduces their costs. This allows and even forces prices to drop. Lower prices tend to increase consumption. Cigarettes are known to be price inelastic, that is, it takes a relatively large price increase to cause a consumption decrease. But, as with any good, there still is an inverse correlation--higher prices mean less consumption. Thus bans on persuasive ads are theorized to have the opposite of the intended effect. It should be noted that there is no empirical data in the study, so this suggestion must remain speculative, if intriguing.

Gun Control

Another quasi-prohibition movement involves firearms. While the Second Amendment to the US Constitution bars outright prohibition, gun control advocates are constantly trying to prohibit various aspects of gun ownership, such as bans on handguns, so-called Saturday night specials, so-called assault weapons, and bans on the concealed carrying of firearms.

The question, of course, is do these bans reduce the level of violence? Again there is evidence that the reverse is true. Edgar A. Suter, MD, writing in the Journal of the Medical Association of Georgia states:

Crime and homicide rates are highest in jurisdictions, such as Washington DC, New York City, Chicago and California, where the most restrictive gun licensing, registration and prohibition schemes exist.

Given just this information, it is not clear whether the restriction of guns caused the crime rate to go up, or if the already existing high crime rate caused gun controls. In an attempt to answer this question, scholars have looked at crime rates before and after gun law enactment.

For example, the toughest gun law in America was enacted in Evanston, Illinois in 1982 when it banned nearly all handguns within the city limits. (A few smaller towns have even stricter laws, but are so small that statistical evaluation is nearly meaningless. In 1980 Evanston had a population of 73,431.) If a little gun control is a good thing, then tougher control should show the greatest reduction in crime.

However, a survey by Gary Kleck of crime in Evanston in the years before and after the ban went into effect showed statistically trivial increases in the homicide and assault rates, and a 3-5% decrease in robberies. This surely points to the inability of a handgun ban to reduce crime, and may indicate that the freedom to own handguns reduces robberies.

Advocates of gun control often point to the far lower homicide rate in Japan, where gun ownership rates are low, and claim that if we could only get gun ownership in America down that low, we too would enjoy a lower crime rate. It should be obvious upon reflection that such cross-cultural comparisons are fraught with peril. The two nations have huge differences in not only homicide rates but in most other sociological factors thought to contribute to homicide. These include cultural and ethnic homogeneity, readiness to obey authority, and so on. In an attempt to make the comparison a little more valid, Kleck compared homicide rates of Japanese-Americans in America with homicide rates of Japanese in Japan. He found that for the period 1976-78, Japanese Americans, with ready access to guns, committed 1.04 homicides per 100,000 population. In Japan, where gun ownership is almost unknown, the rate was 2.45, more than double. While this still does not adequately control for other variables, it does suggest the theory that prohibiting guns may contribute to the homicide rate, rather than reduce it.

Similarly, banning the concealed carrying of handguns has had an opposite effect to that intended. The intent of the prohibition was of course to reduce the number of guns carried by the general public, and so reduce violence. However, violence goes down when concealed carrying is allowed.

Thirty-one states have laws requiring officials to issue concealed-weapons permits to qualified applicants (no criminal records and mentally stable). According to Lott and Mustard these laws deter violent crime by significant amounts (and only produce an extremely small increase in accidental deaths from handguns). Specifically, "When state concealed handgun laws went into effect in a county, murders fell by 7.65 percent and rapes and aggravated assaults fell by 5 and 7 percent respectively."

Although it is slightly outside the scope of this paper, the above data may leave the reader wondering in some desperation what can be done about America?s high level of violence? If we permit citizens to carry concealed handguns, murders only fall by about eight percent. This does not begin to address the problem, although it is a start. David Kopel has part of the answer. He notes that both Switzerland and Japan have far lower homicide rates than the US, but that Switzerland requires every able-bodied male between age 20 and 50 to keep a fully automatic assault rifle in his house, while in Japan gun ownership is all but unknown. Gun ownership alone therefore cannot explain low crime rates. Kopel writes: "The crucial variable is not the presence of firearms, but the degree to which young people are successfully socialized into non-criminal, responsible behavior patterns."

Illegal Drugs

The very existence of drug prohibition makes it difficult, if not illegal, to conduct studies of the consequences of decriminalization. As a result they are not readily available, if available at all. However it is possible to glimpse such results indirectly.

Generally, prohibition has the effect of shifting consumption toward more concentrated forms of the prohibited product, since more concentrated products are more easily smuggled and consumed covertly. During America?s experiment with alcohol prohibition, consumption shifted toward hard liquor and away from wine and beer, a perverse result from which America has still not fully recovered. Regarding illegal drugs, this phenomenon is even more pronounced. According to Law Professor Randy Barnett:

Furthermore, in cultures where opiates are legal, they are primarily consumed by smoking, snorting or inhaling fumes. Each of these practices may lead to addiction, but only rarely if ever to death or disease. Injection, a more efficient method of consumption resulting from the artificially high prices created by prohibition, carries with it the dangers of overdose and now AIDS, and much more easily leads to dependency.

The more reasonable advocates of drug prohibition do not strongly oppose drug use--they constantly harp of the problems of drug abuse. Yet the policy they advocate--prohibition--while theoretically reducing overall drug use, may seriously increase drug abuse. The overall cost-benefit analysis of current drug policy is beyond the scope of this paper, but it is clear that in certain cases, drug prohibition intensified the harm which it intends to reduce.


The various forms of erotic literature have been repeatedly prohibited and legalized throughout history. Again, the theory is that viewing such material leads to sexual abusive behavior. The Meese Commission?s report on pornography, commissioned by the Reagan administration, certainly though so. Interestingly, a similar effort commissioned by President Johnson came to the opposite conclusion.

Unfortunately for the prohibitionists, the evidence again confounds their theory. Although many studies have been done to attempt to find a positive link between pornography and sexual abuse and violence,

The existence of the alleged casual relationship is conclusively refuted by the fact that levels of violence and discrimination against women are often inversely related to the availability of sexually explicit materials, including violent sexually explicit materials.

Probably the largest ad hoc experiment along these lines was the lifting of the prohibition of pornography in Denmark in 1965. As Ben-Veniste reports:

If pornography is indeed a cause of sex crime, we would expect to see a rise in Copenhagen?s sex crime rate since pornography began to be freely disseminated. On the other hand, a decrease in the rate of sex crime, barring other explanations, would certainly give credence to the catharsis or safety valve theory. An analysis of Copenhagen police statistics reveals that the rate of reported sex crimes has declined sharply during the period that hard-core pornography has been freely disseminated.

Ben-Venitse looked at crime rates through 1969, and found that lifting prohibition resulted in less of the harmful behavior that had been legislated against. A second study came to similar conclusions and found that the most dramatic drop in sex crimes was in child molestation:

Between 1965 (the first year of the availability of hard-core pornographic pictures) and 1969 (the year of...peak production), the number of cases of this type dropped from 220 to 87.

Of course to note problems with prohibitory policies towards pornography and various drugs is not to endorse the consumption of drugs or pornography. It is simply to point out that prohibition often has unintended consequences.

The 55 MPH Speed Limit

A more prosaic example of the reaction of society to prohibitory laws is the attempt to save energy and lives by imposing a 55 mile per hour speed limit on the interstate highway system. In 1973, in response to the oil shock, Washington reduced the speed limit to 55 MPH and then allowed the states to raise it again in 1987. Since some states did so, and others did not, researchers were quick to compare the results. Again the conventional wisdom held that highway fatalities would go up by 4,400 to 6,000 per year. Forty states did increase speed limits, and rather than an increase in highway fatalities, they enjoyed a reduction in statewide highway fatalities of 3.4 percent, as compared to the states that did not increase their speed limits. The reasons seem to be twofold:

First, a freeing up police for more effective safety work than writing tickets.
And second, a reduction in speed differentials on highways where some people obey the low limit and others do not.
The repeal of the prohibition on automobile travel at faster than 55 MPH was predicted to be harmful, but was in fact beneficial. Not only did fatalities fall, but people wasted less time driving and highways could carry more traffic.

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Registered: 07/22/99
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Re: How Prohibition Increases the Harm It Tries to Reduce [Re: Annom]
    #2117934 - 11/17/03 08:29 PM (14 years, 6 months ago)

Hi, just want to add a little bit of trivia to this post.

It was Abraham Lincoln who brought this subject up and wrote about it:


"Prohibition...goes beyond the bounds of reason in that it attempts to control a man's appetite by legislation and makes a crime out of things that are not crimes...a prohibition law strikes a blow at the very principles upon which our government was founded."

Abraham Lincoln-December 1840.

And let us not forget Jonathan Ott's Proemium in his Pharmacotheon regarding the stu[piduty of prohibition. He is the most outspoken person against Government controol of drugs in America.


Edited by mjshroomer (11/17/03 08:30 PM)

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Re: How Prohibition Increases the Harm It Tries to Reduce [Re: mjshroomer]
    #2118090 - 11/17/03 09:40 PM (14 years, 6 months ago)

Good post MJ!

The bus came by and I got on that's when it all began!

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Octi Doci

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Re: How Prohibition Increases the Harm It Tries to Reduce [Re: mjshroomer]
    #2118109 - 11/17/03 09:51 PM (14 years, 6 months ago)

"Prohibition...goes beyond the bounds of reason in that it attempts to control a man's appetite by legislation and makes a crime out of things that are not crimes...a prohibition law strikes a blow at the very principles upon which our government was founded."

Its just so obvious. :shake: 

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Re: How Prohibition Increases the Harm It Tries to Reduce [Re: Annom]
    #2119313 - 11/18/03 10:49 AM (14 years, 6 months ago)

That was a good read Annom, long but great...thanks

The bus came by and I got on that's when it all began!

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Re: How Prohibition Increases the Harm It Tries to Reduce [Re: Ripple]
    #2119321 - 11/18/03 10:53 AM (14 years, 6 months ago)

That was a GREAT read! Thank you for posting!


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Re: How Prohibition Increases the Harm It Tries to Reduce [Re: Ripple]
    #2119357 - 11/18/03 11:11 AM (14 years, 6 months ago)

This is the best reading on that particular subject I've come across yet!

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H?L? GH??
Registered: 07/21/03
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Re: How Prohibition Increases the Harm It Tries to Reduce [Re: Annom]
    #2119362 - 11/18/03 11:13 AM (14 years, 6 months ago)

A lot of that was quite accurate.

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Trip'n Time

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Re: How Prohibition Increases the Harm It Tries to Reduce [Re: RunDMT]
    #2120400 - 11/18/03 06:05 PM (14 years, 6 months ago)

I've been wondering what other things were 'prohibited' and what the deal w/ them was after hearing a doc on prostitution and the arguements sounded alot like drug ones. Nice paper :smile:

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