Prohibition Era Contributed to Longer Lives

Nine decades after prohibition laws were repealed, a new study suggests that the ban on drinking may have extended lives for those born in the "dry" era.

Prohibition, the total ban on manufacturing and selling alcohol between 1920 to 1933 in the United States, is widely seen as a failure because it did not radically reduce alcohol consumption nor eradicate addiction.

A new study published in Economics and Human Biology suggests a previously overlooked prohibition benefit for public health.

The research authors used Social Security Administration death records from 1975 to 2005 that were linked to the 1940 U.S. census. They identified counties of residence and determined whether alcohol sales were legal at the time of birth.

Because prohibition laws were imposed in parts of the country at different times, the researchers could compare the old-age longevity of individuals who spent their early life and childhood in "dry" counties to those who did not.

Being born in a county where alcohol was prohibited correlated with about 0.17 additional years during old age.

After taking into consideration other factors, such as a lack of knowledge about the dangers of consuming alcohol during pregnancy, researchers found that people born in "dry" counties lived 1.7 years longer on average.

Americans born between 1900 and 1930 experienced an increase in life expectancy by 11.8 years, mainly due to improvements in medicine and growing income and welfare. The effect of prohibition equals nearly 15% of the overall life expectancy improvements of people born at this time.

Alcohol during pregnancy

The findings are especially important when alcohol consumption during pregnancy is on the rise in the U.S. The number of women who drink while pregnant increased from 9.2% in 2011 to 13.5% in 2022, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data shows.

There is no safe amount of alcohol to consume during pregnancy as it may cause miscarriage, stillbirth, and fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs).

Defined as lifelong physical, behavioral, and intellectual disabilities, FASD characteristics may include the following:

  • Abnormal facial features and small head size.
  • Shorter-than-average height and low body weight.
  • Poor coordination.
  • Hyperactive behavior and difficulty with attention.
  • Poor memory.
  • Difficulty in school, especially with math, and learning disabilities.
  • Speech and language delays.
  • Intellectual disability or low IQ.
  • Poor reasoning and judgment skills.
  • Sleep and sucking problems as a baby.
  • Vision or hearing problems.
  • Problems with the heart, kidney, or bones.

No level of alcohol consumption is safe for adults either, the World Health Organization concluded in 2023.

Classified as a Group 1 carcinogen, alcohol is as dangerous as asbestos, radiation, and tobacco. It is linked to at least seven types of cancer, including the most common types, such as bowel cancer and female breast cancer.

Although prohibition did not achieve its goals, it may have prolonged longevity in those born in the "dry" era.

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