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Major Alcohol Awareness Campaigns Throughout History

Alcohol awareness campaigns have been part of the public health landscape for centuries. With the rise of concern about social responsibility in late 1800s, the negative aspects of alcohol consumption and especially alcohol addiction rose to the forefront of the public debate. Though extreme measures like prohibition are no longer on the table, alcohol use continues to be the target of public health campaigns.

Historical records from early American colonies showed the consumption of alcohol was a concern even then. In 1657, the sale of hard liquor was made illegal in Massachusetts colonies. An early American doctor, Benjamin Rush, was one of the first people to argue that alcohol could be dangerous to the body and should not be used at all. His writings were very influential, and are often credited with being the foundation of the temperance movement.
The temperance movement in the United States began in the early 1800s, and members saw alcohol consumption as a moral issue. Most early supporters did not want to ban alcohol entirely; rather, they wanted alcohol to be used more responsibly. Often, distilled liquor such as whiskey was discouraged, but moderate use of weaker alcoholic beverages was not seen as a problem. Members of the temperance movement were concerned with the well-being of others, especially the poor and working classes. Problems such as domestic violence, homelessness, and criminal activity were often blamed on alcohol abuse. The temperance movement was particularly championed by women, who saw abstinence as a moral imperative. Carrie Nation, a woman who lives in Kansas in the 1880s, was so enthusiastic about the cause that she would go into bars, destroy alcohol bottles with a hatchet, and lecture the bars patrons about the merits of abstinence.

Over time, the temperance movement evolved, and by the end of World War I, many proponents were advocating total abstinence from alcohol. The origins of the Salvation Army can be found in the temperance movement. The organization was founded on the principle of total abstinence from alcohol; members focused on helping the working class, who many saw as disproportionately affected by the dangers and effects of alcohol.

In 1920, thanks to bipartisan pressure, the sale of alcohol for consumption was banned the United States. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this did not result in the citizens the United States abstaining from alcohol. Rather, it prompted the illicit sale of alcohol and even substances that had psychological effects, such as synthetic drugs. The ban of alcohol was the stepping stone on which organized crime families built their empires — selling moonshine was a lucrative business. The father of President John F. Kennedy made his family fortune selling illegal liquor during the prohibition period. During this time, there was significant pushback from a segment of society that came to be known as the wets, who advocated for the repeal of prohibition. In 1933, their efforts were successful. Support for the repeal came from concerns about personal liberty as well as a desire for the income the federal government would receive from the taxation of alcoholic drinks.

Since the repeal, there have been many public health campaigns focusing on safe drinking, but very few have advocated abstinence. Furthermore, though it is true that alcohol use can worsen a domestic violence situation, alcohol is not considered the cause of it. Most alcohol awareness campaigns have focused on drunk driving and underage drinking.
In the 1970s, the Drink Responsibly campaign began. Ads were placed on television, on billboards, and in print materials urging people to drink with care. Popular slogans from this campaign included, “A license to drive is not a license to drink.” Wallet cards that explained blood-alcohol concentrations were distributed as part of the “Know your limits” campaign.

In the 1980s, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services spearheaded the Healthy Mothers/Healthy Babies campaign, which highlighted the dangers of drinking during pregnancy and the horrors of fetal alcohol syndrome.
The landmark “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk” campaign focused on sober driving. Later initiatives including designated drivers and contracts in which underage kids pledged to never get into a car with a drunk driver have also become important deterrents.

Alcoholism, the physical and psychological dependence on alcohol, has also become the subject of alcohol awareness campaigns. The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence Incorporated sponsors alcohol awareness month every April, during which issues related to alcohol dependence are highlighted.