Popular Science Monthly/Volume 44/January 1894/Legal Preventives of Alcoholism



WE have met to study together the means of combating alcoholism, to which we can not refuse the well-merited title of the scourge of the nineteenth century, for it has produced and is still producing more victims than the plague and the cholera combined. We all know that it is what multiplies assassinations and suicides, populates insane asylums, crowds hospitals, and contributes to the sterilization of the race. We are not here to repeat what has been said over and over again till it has become tedious, since the days of Magnus Hus, or to indulge in sterile lamentations over the ravages of alcoholism, but to seek a remedy for the terrible evil.

I do not bring you this remedy, but come to ask for it; for I hope that this congress—more fortunate than its predecessors—may be able, if not to shape the details of a law or of measures applicable to all civilized states, at least to point out, in a more precise fashion than has hitherto been done, a way to reach most promptly and surely the end we are all aiming for. We ought then, first, to inquire into what has already been attempted in some of the states of Europe: and I shall begin with the country I know the best, France, which has not, more than the northern states, escaped the invasion of alcoholism. It is of recent origin there, it is true, but its progress has been frightfully rapid; yet it was not till after the delirium and crime of the Commune, during which it played a terrible part, that our thoughts became fixed on the study of the means of arresting the spread of the scourge.

It was toward the end of 1871 that M. Théophile Roussel presented and secured the adoption by the National Assembly of a law against intoxication; and about the same time, too, the Academy of Medicine commissioned me to prepare an Advice to the People on the dangers of the abuse of alcoholic drinks; and that the lamented Lunier, seeking to carry out practically a conclusion of my Report on Vinage, organized the French Temperance Society. But the law against intoxication, executed leniently from its promulgation, soon fell into desuetude;[2] the Advice to the People has been a dead letter; and I am obliged to confess that the Temperance Society, which decorated me after two years of presidency of it with the title of honorary president, in spite of the zeal and talent of its general secretary, M. Motet, drags on a precarious and obscure existence, and has, I believe, accomplished to the present time nothing more than to reward a few brave men who have remained sober, without diminishing by a single individual the number of drunken men.

The state has attempted to intervene in the struggle against the progress of the evil no further than to raise the taxes on alcohol to an amount which seems exorbitant, but is still much lower than the tax the English consumer pays; but this increase has exercised no influence on the consumption, which, on the other hand, has not ceased to advance, as it has also done in England since the establishment of the new taxes.

We might apparently base great hopes on the reduction of the taxes on the substances entering into the preparation of hygienic drinks, such as coffee and tea, and of the sugar tax. Indeed, I think that these are excellent measures, and of advantage to sober persons accustomed to these salutary drinks to the exclusion of intoxicating liquors; but I hardly believe that they are of such a nature as to cause drinkers of alcohol to give up their favorite beverage, or to secure youth, workmen, or others from the attractions of the inn, where more alcohol and distilled liquors are sold than wine.

The consumer can not be induced to use coffee and tea instead of alcohol, unless he can find in those hygienic drinks the excitation which alcohol and all the mischievous preparations of which it is the base will procure for him. Now, this excitation of the brain is the source of all the harm. To beginners, who as yet use alcoholic drinks with moderation, they give the agreeable sensation of seeing everything on the good side, and of experiencing a momentary augmentation of strength. We should not be surprised, therefore, to find that people who have for the first time felt this sensation are tempted to seek it anew, and to ask of it continually a forgetting, even though it be only momentary, of the difficulties of life, of the fatigues of their occupation, and the illusion of a greater capacity for work which neither tea nor coffee will ever procure for them.

We might, therefore, regard the reduction of the duties on wines as a suitable measure for diminishing the ravages of alcoholism. I believe, in fact, that even the abuse of wine, supposing it to be pure from all addition of alcohol, is not so injurious as even the moderate use of alcoholic drinks; but, with wine the drinker will obtain the excitation he seeks only by drinking considerable quantities, while a small portion of alcohol suffices for producing, at less expense, the desired effect.

Rational as these different measures may be, I consider them powerless so long as the drinker of alcohol can find everywhere, at every hour and every step, a shop for the sale of his favorite beverage. To suppose them efficacious in the present state of affairs—that is, with unlimited liberty to every one to open a shop is to expect on the part of the drinker, and especially for one to whom life is a hard trial, a moral constraint and an effort of reason of which he is incapable, at least in many mediums and under many social conditions. For this reason, without discrediting the results which may be reached by adjustment of taxation, I am still convinced that the surest means of restraining the drinker swiftly descending into alcoholism, and of preventing the fall of those as yet unacquainted with the mischievous seductions of the infirmity, is, first of all, to protect him against the temptation; then, if the measures which I shall call prophylactic fail, to inflict a punishment upon him proportionate to the gravity of his offense; and I am obliged to acknowledge with regret that nothing serious has been as yet done in France in either of these directions. Norwegian legislation, on the contrary, appears to me to be admirably conceived from the point of view of prophylactics. In Norway, whoever wishes to open a liquor shop must ask permission from the municipality, which may refuse it. In order to take away all retroactive effect, they had, in the beginning, to exempt dealers already established from the necessity of obtaining a permit; but when the successive extinctions did not diminish the number of shops fast enough, the municipalities were authorized to expropriate, on condition of indemnifying them, a suitable number of the existing shops.

This is evidently a measure which might give salutary results in every country, provided the municipalities are sufficiently impressed with the importance of the object sought, and comprehend that it is nothing less than to save the country from a serious peril.

A priori, we might hope much from the Gothenburg system, which consists chiefly in intrusting the management of the public houses to temperance men, who, in selling alcoholic drinks, the use of which it is very hard to suppress completely in northern countries, and giving them to consumers only in proportions compatible with the maintenance of health, should make every endeavor especially to induce their customers to prefer tea and coffee. But I do not know whether this system has been greatly extended or has been generalized, with good results. I believe, however, that the most radical measure, and the one that has been most efficacious, is that of giving to municipal councils the right of absolutely prohibiting the sale of spirituous liquors. Where this system is in operation we may sometimes go considerable distances, it is said, without finding a single liquor shop. If a less restrictive rule is adopted, the prohibition of the sale on religious holidays, and before eight o'clock in the morning and after six in the evening on working days, can not but contribute to the success of a campaign like that so intelligently undertaken and energetically conducted by Norway. Whatever part may have been contributed by each of these measures to the realized results, it is a fact testifying eloquently to their efficiency that in that country the consumption of alcohol, which was in 1843 eight litres per inhabitant, has fallen to 1·70 litre, while in France it is now four litres, having risen, since 1850, from only 1·45 litre. In Germany the taxes on liquors are light, although they have recently been quadrupled; but increase of taxes has not brought about any reduction in consumption, which is 4·5 litres per inhabitant. On the other hand, it should not be forgotten that no serious effort has been made there until recently to contend against the scourge. It is announced, however, that the Government, struck with the dangers threatening the people by the increase of alcoholism, is preparing new legislation which will apply to sellers and consumers. For dealers it requires a license which will be granted only when competent authorities are satisfied of the need of the shop, or are given incontestable moral guarantees; prohibits their selling on credit, declaring all debts contracted for liquors null; forbids sales to children less than thirteen years old and to in-intoxicated persons; and makes them responsible for disorders occurring in their establishments, with penalties consisting of fines or imprisonment for not more than four weeks.

The new system affects consumers through the measures it provides for the protection of society and families against injury from drunkards. The principal of these measures are, besides the pecuniary punishment for the public scandal of a man in a state of intoxication, removal to a special establishment for victims of alcoholism, and putting the drunkard under guard if he shows himself unfit to manage his affairs, or misbehaves in a way to imperil the safety of third persons. While the dealers do not accept with good grace a measure which will so greatly compromise their interests, and are petitioning against it, the women see in it a hope for the salvation of their families, and are also circulating petitions in which it is declared that when the free use of alcoholic drinks, often adulterated, is energetically prevented, prosperity will return to the homes of numerous workmen. The women are right this time, and I would sign their petition with both hands; and I wish that our French women might form a league for the same purpose, which might perhaps awaken our legislators from their indifference.

Austria has increased the tax on intoxicating drinks, and has endeavored to limit the number of public houses; but I have no documents at hand from which I can learn the effect of these measures. Belgium has not adopted any restrictive law except one against intoxication, and the consumption of liquors there has risen to twelve litres per inhabitant, while public houses have multiplied till there is now an average of one for every forty-three inhabitants, and in some places one for every twenty-four, or for every five or six adults. In the grand duchy of Luxemburg the number of drinking shops has become so excessive that a law has been promulgated raising the license fees and subjecting dealers to a tax proportioned to the number of inhabitants, with a proviso for considering the debts of the concern in fixing the fees.

Coming now to the Netherlands, I am glad to be able to recognize the wise enactments which your legislators have given you. They have thought, without doubt, and with strong reasons, in my opinion, that all fiscal measures would be ineffective so long as anybody or everybody should be at liberty to offer these mischievous drinks to the public. They have, therefore, prudently prohibited the combination of the trade in drink with a wholly different trade; and I appreciate this feature all the more because I see in France every trade, whatever be its nature, serving as a pretext for the sale of liquor, so that every person entering a shop, without thinking of harm, to buy food or any other goods, is exposed to the temptation of drinking alcohol, which he finds displayed before him. I am not, however, completely informed concerning the value of the results which this plan has brought forth. I have no data for comparing the statistics of the time before the measure was adopted and those following it, and the only statistics I have relate to the proportion of the victims of alcohol per hundred of insane; from these it appears that after suffering a slight diminution on the application of the law, the proportion rose between 1878 and 1882.

From this summary I find that of the measures so far adopted against alcoholism those have produced the most important results which, taking account of human weakness and of the hardships of the struggle for existence in certain classes, have aimed to remove from the man the occasion for falling, in the adoption of which Norway leads among European states.

The repression which appears to me to be indispensable has so far played only a very secondary part; but I acknowledge that the German project presents a collection of repressive measures which may be of real efficiency.

If I could venture to formulate a few principles as the basis of legislation against alcoholism, I should propose: aiming at the dealers by limiting their number to a pro rata of the normal needs of* the population; raising the license fee to the highest possible amount; giving license, as the German plan contemplates, only to persons of known morality; imposing on them, by a system of inspections and frequent analyses of their stock, the obligation to sell only completely rectified spirits; prohibiting their selling on credit, and declaring drink debts null; forbidding their selling to youths of less than twenty years of age; making them responsible for all mischief committed by persons coming from their establishments; and absolutely refusing license to all commercial establishments other than those especially devoted to the sale of liquors.

If we add to this an increase of the taxes on alcohol large enough to make the price of a glass too high for the man's purse, complemented with a reduction of the taxes on natural wines, tea, coffee, and sugar; supplementing this with frequent lectures on the benefits of sobriety and the anatomical injuries and physiological disorders produced by alcohol; and especially if we endeavor to preserve the rising generation from promiscuous associations and the corruption of the great centers, and instill into their hearts from infancy the principles of sound morals; and if the repressive laws against intoxication are rigorously executed the penalties against it are faithfully inflicted, and the protection of children against demoralization and abuse by unworthy parents which I have had introduced into our laws is guarded, we may perhaps see the rising wave of alcoholism recede.

This is the course, in my opinion, upon which those governments which, having assured the grandeur of their countries, perceive how it is threatened by alcoholism and how urgent is the necessity of arresting the progress of the vice, should now resolutely enter.

I do not know all the obstacles that may interfere in different countries against the efforts of the state to remove the danger. I know that in France and Germany the good intentions of the Government and Chambers will be strongly opposed by the inn-keepers; but I know, too, that no obstacles are insurmountable to a political power strongly impenetrated with love of its country.—Translated for The Popular Science Monthly from the Revue Scientifique.

  1. A paper read at the Fourth International Congress against the Abuse of Alcoholic Drinks, held at The Hague in August, 1893.
  2. In the first years following the promulgation of the law against public intoxication, there were drawn up annually from eighty thousand to ninety thousand indictments for violation; since 1885 the number of prosecutions has fallen off one half; it varies between forty-five thousand and fifty thousand; and it is to this relaxation in repression that we should attribute the diminution in the number of indictments, and not to progress in temperance, for the ravages of alcoholism keep on increasing.