Cigarettes and Alcohol


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Noun: The act of forbidding something, especially by law

In 1919 the US government attempted to reduce levels of alcohol consumption.  They passed legislation that prohibited its production, transportation and sale.  The ban was almost complete, bar a few exceptions for religious and medical use.  During the 1920’s the U.S government spent about $220m enforcing these laws. Approximately $3.2bn at todays prices.

 Prohibition had many of side effects:

  • Sales of grape juice quadrupled during the prohibition era.  Concentrated grape juice was sold with a warning… “After dissolving the brick in a gallon of water, do not place the liquid in a jug away in the cupboard for twenty days, because then it would turn into wine” .
  • Doctors prescribed medicinal alcohol an estimated 11 million times every year.
  • The US government ordered the poisoning of industrial alcohol.  As many as 10,000 people died from drinking it.  New York City medical examiner Charles Norris said that “the United States government must be charged with the moral responsibility for the deaths that poisoned liquor causes”.
  • Alcohol smuggling flourished.  Bootleggers brought ships right up to the edge of the three mile limit of U.S. territorial waters. Then they unloaded their cargoes to local fishermen and small boat captains who ran the gauntlet of customs and the coast guard.  From the New Jersey coast, it was possible to see as many as sixty ships at any time.
  • Criminal gangs moved in on alcohol smuggling and distribution operations, by 1925 there were over 30,000 speakeasys in New York alone.
  • Loss of tax revenue from the alcohol industry lead to lower government spending. Economists claim this was one of the triggers for the great depression.

It wasn’t all bad. Prohibition is also credited with the spread of Jazz and the development of NASCAR racing. Assuming you like Jazz and NASCAR racing.

The US Government repealed prohibition after 14 years in 1933 due to public pressure.  It is unclear if it had any effect on alcohol consumption


Noun: The act of inducing somebody to do something through reasoning or argument.

In 1950, Doll and Bradford-Hill published a report in the British Medical Journal. It suggested a link between smoking and lung cancer.  Four years later The British Health Minister, Iain Macleod agreed. “It must be regarded as established that there is a relationship between smoking and cancer of the lung”

Since the 1970s there have been multiple interventions to reduce smoking. Like prohibition some things were banned, but it has always been possible to buy and smoke cigarettes in the United Kingdom.

  • Smoking was stopped in bars and restaurants, but there was nothing to stop you smoking outside.  In the middle of November outside isn’t a great place to be, particularly if your mates are all inside having fun.
  • Smoking was banned in work places, but you could always visit a smoking shelter, outside again, in the cold.
  • Cigarette packaging was changed to include some truly horrific images.  That packet of Marlborough’s doesn’t look as sexy as it did.
  • Whilst available in shops, cigarettes are not on view.  Nobody wants to look at the packets any more anyway.
  • The government spent money on hideously shocking adverts.
  • Help to quit smoking is available on the NHS.  This comes in the form of counselling, prescription drugs or nicotine replacement patches, inhalers and gum.
  • Taxation on cigarettes has increased over the years.  A packet of cigarettes in the UK costs twice what they do in Germany.
  • An alternative to smoking — vaping — has hit the market.  Vaping is a whole lot cheaper than smoking.
  • There has been a total ban on tobacco advertising and promotion.

In 2017 17 million people in the UK smoked.  Down from 46 million in 1974.  Depending on which statistic you choose, rates of lung cancer have halved.  There has been no public backlash and no serious pressure for a repeal of the anti smoking laws.

Are they comparable?

Two similar initiatives with similar aims. Two governments who were trying to reduce the consumption of a popular, readily available drug but who took very different tacks.

In America the approach was “you must”, in the UK the approach was “we think it would be a good idea if you did”.

Perhaps the comparison doesn’t stand too much scrutiny, but for those of us trying to change organisational behaviour one thing is clear… 

People deeply resent being told what to do.  A series of nudges, a little education, polite insistence and a good dose of peer pressure is invariably a lot more successful.

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Photo by Mika on Unsplash

Republished with author's permission from original post.

James Lawther
James Lawther is a middle-aged middle manager. To reach this highly elevated position he has worked for many organisations, from supermarkets to tax collectors and has had multiple roles from running a night shift to doing operational research. He gets upset by operations that don't work and mildly apoplectic about poor customer service.


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