As laws against smoking and drugs become more draconian, the relative regulatory neglect of alcohol appears a mystery. Much of this mystery -- at least in the US context -- has recently been dispelled in Paying the Tab (Princeton University Press), a gem of social science by the Duke University economist Philip Cook. Today's regulation of alcohol has its roots not in the reaction against the Prohibition years (1920-1933), Mr Cook shows, but in a more recent development: the spread of the "disease theory" of alcoholism over the past half century. Promoted by researchers at Yale and by Alcoholics Anonymous, the disease theory held that alcohol was a selectively addictive drug. Alcoholism describd a small group of people congenitally unable to "handle" it.
The disease concept was socially useful. It removed the stigma for problem drinkers seeking treatment. It made addiction counsellors look less like bluenoses and more like experts. And it was a godsend to liquor companies, which could now maximise sales with a clean conscience.
Paradoxically, the more Americans worried about alcoholism, the more readily available alcohol became. Regulating alcohol's harms at the level of the product, through taxes and licensing, looked like an unnecessary imposition on the undiseased. Instead alcohol policy involved stigmatising identifiable classes of lawbreakers -- primarily drunk drivers and teenagers.
Mr Cook considers the work of the French demographer Sully Ledermann, who showed in 1956 that the distribution of alcohol consumption in any large population follows roughly the same distribution curve. Alcohol abuse is a dependent variable. If you want to cut down on alcoholic drinking one effective way to do so is to reduce general consumption -- average drinking. In fact, because of the steepness of Ledermann's curve (a third of Americans do not drink; 10 per cent drink three-quarters of the booze) small decreases in average drinking will bring relatively large decreases in pathological drinking.
The rest of the article is available here (though unfortunately only to FT subscribers or those willing to take out a 15-day free trial subscription). The book (going by a quick Look Inside on Amazon) looks extremely interesting, though at $35 it does have me wondering whether I should set up my own book rental scheme.