History of Alcohol Regulation: Prohibition & Taxation Video

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  • 0:02 Alcohol's Past
  • 0:53 Alcohol in Early America
  • 1:39 Temperance and Prohibition
  • 3:40 Regulation
  • 4:33 Taxation
  • 5:36 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Lisa Roundy

Lisa has taught at all levels from kindergarten to college and has a master's degree in human relations.

Alcohol has a history of use and regulation that began in ancient times and continues to modern laws on use and taxation. This lesson will review your knowledge of the legal history of alcohol.

Alcohol's Past

You are an archaeologist working in Syria in 2001. You dig up a cache of clay tablets. Upon translation of the tablets, you learn that you have unearthed a 3,800-year-old recipe for brewing beer. There are many other examples that date back even farther. There is evidence of alcoholic beverages in ancient Egypt, Europe, China, India, and South America.

Alcoholic beverages have obviously been around for a while, but has the use of alcohol always been subject to regulation? It might surprise you to learn that regulation has been around since ancient times as well. The first known recorded set of laws, the Code of Hammurabi, lists rules and regulations regarding the drinking and sale of alcohol dating back to around 2000 BC.

Alcohol in Early America

Alcohol has played a role in America as well. The early colonists who settled in America brought alcohol with them. The lack of water purification techniques made drinking alcoholic beverages safer than drinking water at the time. Because of this, drinking alcohol was an activity accepted by nearly everyone. Both children and adults drank alcohol, and you would even find it served at breakfast.

Unfortunately, some colonists began to let their drinking get out of hand. There may have been widespread acceptance of drinking but not of drinking too much. This was the beginning of a controversial relationship with alcohol in America.

Temperance and Prohibition

Eventually, concern over excess drinking led to the temperance movement. The temperance movement was a social movement that urged restraint in the consumption of alcoholic beverages. The early stages of the temperance movement in America began around 1800. Posters warned of the evils of alcohol, and protesters picketed outside of taverns. One lively protester is even reported to have stormed taverns and hacked open barrels of mead with an axe.

The temperance movement in America ultimately evolved into a push for the total prohibition of alcohol. Around 1900, a political party was formed by prohibitionists. By 1920, there was some form of legal prohibition of alcohol in 33 states, and prohibitionists were ready to act on a national scale. This resulted in the addition of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, which made it illegal to make, sell, or ship alcohol anywhere in the United States.

However, the 18th Amendment did not prevent the consumption of alcohol. Instead, it actually led to other problems for society. Alcohol was still made and sold illegally. The money involved in the illegal sale of alcohol led to the rise of organized crime. These mobsters fought with police for control in many United States cities.

Before long, most people wanted an end to Prohibition. Alcohol consumption may have declined somewhat, but the turmoil was too high a price to pay. Even those who were against drinking wanted the law changed. Within 13 years, alcohol was made legal again with 21st Amendment to the Constitution, which repealed the 18th Amendment. From this time on, each state set its own rules about who could make, sell, and consume alcohol.


The way alcohol is legally regulated in each state varies, and in some instances, regulation is passed on to the county or other local governing bodies. For example, a county government may enact a law prohibiting the sale of alcohol within county borders.

There's one important thing that state laws have in common. In all states today, a legal drinking age of 21 has been established. This means that it is illegal for anyone under the age of 21 to purchase or consume alcoholic beverages in the United States. Also, while each state establishes its own laws about the use of alcohol, there are some federal regulations that still exist. For example, federal government regulates how alcohol can be advertised and determines the labeling requirements for alcoholic beverages.

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