Use testing and tracing infrastructure to enforce alcohol Prohibition?

Back in 2016, I wrote “Reintroduce Prohibition for the U.S.?”, pointing out various advantages for American society if we could reduce alcohol consumption. This proposal was not well-received!

What about in the Age of Corona? Technocrats are gearing up for a massive testing and tracing operation. Example: “Here’s A Way To Contain Covid-19 And Reopen The Economy In As Little As One Month” (Forbes, by a Boston University econ professor). Excerpts:

The solution is PCR group-household testing of all American households every week. … If a household tests negative, each household member would be notified to go to their local pharmacy to receive a green wristband coated to change to red after one week.

This system is voluntary. But if you choose to have your household tested and receive your green wristband, you’ll be permitted by your employer to return to work, by your teachers and professors to return to school, and by proprietors to enter their restaurants, shops, cafes, etc. You’ll also be allowed to frequent the beach, attend concerts, go to the movies, …

Any household that tests positive will be required by the local board of health to quarantine in place for two weeks and then be re-tested. Households that don’t voluntarily get tested will be free to come and go as they wish. But without their green bracelets, they will have a hard time entering into workplaces and other establishments. Employers who hired the untested could face legal liability. The same holds for any business serving the public who lets someone onto their premises without a green bracelet.

My Dutch friend: “This will be just like it was for Jews after the Nuremberg Laws and similar. They were perfectly free, but couldn’t run a business, buy a movie ticket, or go to school.”

Electronic bracelets can also work: “People-tracking wristbands tested to enforce lockdown” (BBC). See also “US, Israel, South Korea, and China look at intrusive surveillance solutions for tracking COVID-19” (zdnet)

Covid-19 is a pernicious disease. It has killed nearly 300,000 people worldwide so far. But what if we could use the above technology and infrastructure to stop a much more destructive killer: alcohol. WHO says that 3 million deaths worldwide are attributed to alcohol. The average age of a death with/from Covid-19 in Massachusetts is 82 and more than 98 percent of those who died had “underlying conditions.” Alcohol often kills people who could have lived for another 40-100 years. In terms of life-years, therefore, we could save many more by discouraging alcohol consumption.

(Is Covid-19 different because an alcohol-related problem is due to a failure of personal responsibility? Consider the child of an alcoholic or a passenger in a car struck by a drunk driver.)

Given that people can brew their own beer or distill their own vodka, presumably it is not possible to achieve a 100 percent reduction in alcohol consumption. But if restaurants, bars, and airlines (to the extent any are left) were not offering alcohol to every customer and there were no convenient liquor stores (“essential”!), wouldn’t it be fair to expect at least a 10 or 20 percent reduction in alcohol-related deaths? (marijuana consumption increased following legalization in Washington State; shouldn’t we expect alcohol use to be reduced following prohibition?)

Since Americans have now decided that “saving lives” is more important than what used to be considered individual rights… If we succeed with alcohol prohibition using test/trace tech, why not use the same technology to attack HIV/AIDS, which has killed more than 700,000 Americans? (Covid-19 would have to kill 7 million Americans to take away a comparable number of life-years, due to the much younger age at which HIV/AIDS victims perish.) There continue to be 6,000 deaths annually here in the U.S., which is roughly comparable to the life-years lost from 60,000 Covid-19 deaths.

None of these public health interventions were doable in the 20th century. Epidemiologists predicted that HIV/AIDS would spread beyond the LGBTQIA+ community and kill millions of Americans. White upper-middle-class single Americans were terrified in the 1980s by this disease that merited cover stories of TIME magazine multiple times. Nobody would have tolerated the criminalization of sex outside of marriage in order to “save lives”. Today, however, there is no limit on the power of the government when there is a public health goal. (Maybe outlaw all sexual activity? If people want children they can be imported via immigration and/or produced locally and without HIV risk via IVF.)

13 thoughts on “Use testing and tracing infrastructure to enforce alcohol Prohibition?

  1. Great article. If we didn’t have Soviet-style media, many more persons would benefit from thinking about what you write. Reminds me of wisdom about some guy publicly insisting on something like that the naked emperor was in fact naked. Someone told him, what’s the point, you’re never going to change their minds. He replied, yea, but I’m not going to let them change my mind by refusing to change theirs. Thanks for your critical thinking.

  2. Difficult to argue against your modest proposal regarding alcohol. If it didn’t exist today, what responsible person could possibly advocate it? And it’s not the only menace we need to face. The CDC says that “3,000 die from foodborne diseases each year in the United States“. Why do we still accept the medieval concept of a home kitchen? There you have people, lacking professional certification, operating powerful electrical equipment, sharp bladed instruments and sometimes even lighting naked flames. If it saves one life, isn’t it worth it to ban home cooking?

    • That is a great point. I myself have been burned by hot coffee. There is no scientifically proven benefit to hot versus cold coffee. Why not have only cold brew coffee that is professionally and safely bottled and distributed through supermarkets, then stored in refrigerators?

    • Philg, thanks. Another point occurred to me, about reusing previous work for our new situation. The Forbes article you quoted discusses ways of permitting, in a carefully controlled way, healthy people to resume some freedom of movement.

      The good news is, a lot of thought has already been put into just such a system: “Health certificates are required by law when producers move cattle and other livestock out of Nebraska. This gives officials the ability to trace an animal’s location and origin should a disease outbreak occur and makes the disease traceability process faster and more accurate.” Maybe fix a few things in the UI (“Person” instead of “Animal”, etc) and it’s all set.

      If you change a few words in that Dairy Business article, you have our brave new world to a tee. It can’t be long before we all get to enjoy a cool new fashion accessory!

  3. Prohibition was what happened when you gave women the right to vote.

    The nanny state is the epitome of every bitter, sexually unsatisfied woman’s dreams of making everybody else miserable in her own image. By logical extension, Democratic men should be considered women — Pennsylvania’s Health Secretary Rachel Levine.

  4. Weekly testing of 300+ million people that is a lot of PPE and qtips in the trash. But, full employment. I hope they do it, I look forward to living and working in the shadowy off books nontested community.

  5. Am I the only one who thinks it’s ironic our host Phil does a post about prohibition, during the “Age of Corona.” All I can say is my corona is looking for lyme disease!

  6. I’ll sidestep the testing issues for the moment and just mention something about the coming armies of contact tracers. I just read the Reason article. See if you can spot the potential problems here:

    “New York state’s reopening guide explicitly refers to “an army of contact tracers” and sets the hiring of 30 contact tracers per 100,000 residents as one criterion for permitting a region to reopen to normal social and business activity. Ultimately, the state expects to put between 6,400 and 17,000 contact tracers in place.”

    “Some people are a little suspicious. Some people hang up after I ask for their date of birth and address,” Jana De Brauwere, a San Francisco contact tracer, told MIT Technology Review. ”

    “Across the country, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker is just one of many public officials begging people to cooperate with contract tracers.”

    You can sign up to be a NY contract tracer here:

    As the article mentions, Johns Hopkins is providing a free Coursera class teaching people how to be a contract tracer.

    One problem I can think of with armies of contract tracers: soldiers who aren’t really in the army but pretend to be. Given that criminals are generally several steps ahead of authorities in exploiting new avenues for crime, and that all of this is being done as quickly as possible, it’s not hard to think of a few: John Q. Criminal peruses the course materials, gets himself/herself/zirself a fake ID, figures out what other documentation a real contract tracer has, and then starts doing home invasions. Wearing a mask, of course. Or people pretending to be from a testing outfit to harvest your DNA, which can be used as evidence against you in a courtroom, attempting to frame someone else for a crime they commit. The marks willingly give the DNA sample because they’re promised free testing results. I’m sure other people can think of more sinister examples.

  7. I heard this new technique on TV from a local university. Apparently we learned a new biology tracking and tracing technique in Afghanistan. No bracelets or phones or subject cooperation is required. You test the sewer effluent for big areas of a city for Covid (or XYZ biologic marker). You know most blocks will have no COVID and will test negative. But a few areas will positive. You then retest and divide the positive areas into sub sections and then into blocks to trace the positive results to a specific street. Then you can go door to door and do final contact tracing.

    This method is supposed to be much faster and does not need lots of phone work.

  8. The Navajo Nation is locking everyone in their homes all weekend long. Essential workers, gas stations, stores, and everything else.

    “Residents of the Navajo Nation will be under the strictest weekend lockdown yet, with grocery stores and gas stations closed, and even essential workers ordered to stay home.”

    It’s not the Hamptons.

    “McKinley County, which includes Gallup, had been the hot spot on the reservation because of a recent outbreak at a detox center.”

    So people trying to stop drinking and taking drugs became the center of the outbreak.

    I read the Forbes article and the linked Frazier paper:

    I keep trying to read through it (it’s incomplete in several places) and it reads like voodoo science to me. I don’t understand how they classify an entire group as positive or negative with their state transition diagram.

  9. I really liked this part:

    “If a household tests negative, each household member would be notified to go to their local pharmacy to receive a green wristband coated [sic] to change to red after one week.”

    So every week, the three or four local pharmacies in my area serving about 30,000 people are going to distribute wristbands coded for every single individual who lives there. In addition to all the other medications they distribute. Accurately. And on time, because they expire, and then you can’t go to the pharmacy. If your household is quarantined, how do you get your wristbands? These folks may be on to something with their theoretical group testing idea to lower the number of PCR tests needed, but the collection (for the samples, each week, once per household) and distribution (same) logistics challenges are still going to be enormous. Their system relies on the weekly group testing for its PCR efficiency, it’s an inherent design constraint.

    • Now that every former low-to-medium wage worker in Massachusetts is relaxing on unemployment, it takes 20 or 30 minutes to accomplish the typical retail transaction.

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