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Different countries choose radically different ways to regulate peoples' access to alcohol. Some countries and some US states impose a state monopoly on alcohol sale ; others restrict the hours or days when alcohol is available for sale (see Wikipedia for summary).

Relatively recently (well 2005 if that counts as recent) England choose to relax licensing hours making it much easier for pubs or shops to serve alcohol after the traditional closing time of 11pm (wikipedia summary). At the time there were widespread criticisms from the conservative press that this would be a disaster (also see summary on the moral panic that resulted here). Some "experts" are still claiming that it is obvious that restrictions on supply are the most effective way to curb consumption (eg Ian Gilmore's comment here). But, contrary to that expectation, consumption in England has fallen significantly since the relaxation (BBC report).

So the question is what does the worldwide evidence look like? Is there significant evidence that what seems obvious is true: government restrictions limit consumption or harm? Some countries have tried complete prohibition (the USA isn't the only non-islamic state to try this). What was the balance of consumption and harm that led to prohibition being abandoned? Is prohibiting alcohol by age effective? Does restriction by time or supplier work?

NB. I know what seems obvious, but I want to know what the evidence actually says.

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    UK consumption may have been affected by other factors, including a ban on smoking indoors in public places, tax increases and a reduction in incomes due to the recession. – Henry Oct 3 '11 at 21:57
  • consumption in England may also have appeared to have fallen if the "study" determines it mostly or solely on the number of people arrested or ending up in hospitals because of alcohol abuse. If relaxing opening hours leads to people drinking more slowly (but not less) it's possible the number of seriously intoxicated people getting arrested or needing medical attention gets reduced (less drunk drives on the road at any one time, possibly fewer accidents. Lower intake per hour, possibly less cases of alcohol poisoning). – jwenting Oct 4 '11 at 6:32
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    prohibition in the US was abandoned because it was ineffective and led to serious crime (the rise of the mob in Chicago and elsewhere can be traced to the rumrunners and illegal distilleries, and made their initial income from running illegal pubs). In a nation where the means of production and transportation aren't controlled, banning alcohol is impossible as it's easy to make yourself, as the US found out, and in a nation with relatively long and open borders smuggling it in is impossible to contain. Try the same on a remote island and it's a lot more effective. – jwenting Oct 4 '11 at 6:35
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    Not only did prohibition fail in the US, but it left the bootleggers enough money to build Las Vegas. – Monkey Tuesday Oct 4 '11 at 14:31
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    Main bad side effect of Prohibition: Kennedy family :) – user5341 Oct 7 '11 at 16:02
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It is a complex question. Individual laws restricting alcohol sales are only a part of a solution.

Here are some relevant findings:

They looked at three types of alcohol safety laws, including "administrative license revocation laws", and concluded:

The results indicate that each of the three laws had a significant relationship to the downward trend in alcohol-related fatal crashes in the United States over that period. This paper points out that this long-term trend is not the product of a single law. Instead, it is the result of the growing impact of several laws over time plus the affect of some factors not included in the model tested (such as the increasing use of sobriety checkpoints and the media's attention to the drinking-and-driving problem).

This paper highlights some of the complexity, with beer and spirits consumption having different models for consumption.

Spirits and beer consumption are found to react differently to changes in economic, sociodemographic and regulatory variables.

...

While numerous studies have examined individual control laws (frequently finding little relationship between a law and consumption) or such social indicators of drinking as drunk arrests, driving while intoxicated or alcohol mortalities, few studies have examined a variety of control laws as a group.

This is an example of a specific study that found no correlation. The title pretty much explains the whole study, which took place in the two weeks before and after a law change.

No significant changes in the pattern of alcohol or assault related attendances followed the restriction in extensions to permitted licensing hours. CONCLUSIONS: A policy of uniform closing times of licensed premises does not influence the profile of alcohol or assault related attendances at an inner city A&E department.

This book argues that the whole area is complex:

However, we also believe that research endeavours to elucidate the relationships between availability and use are highly complex, demand a great deal of the alcohol researcher and are unlikely to to provide simple answers to the question, "Do reductions in availability reduce alcohol-related problems?" While the answer to this question is usually "yes" it is also sometimes "no", depending on the local context.

It goes on to examine the theories behind the restrictions, the assumptions they make and many of the studies that support and undermine them.

In conclusion:

  • It is possible to find studies that appear to support that limits to the sale of alcohol are associated with a reduction in the adverse effects of drunkenness.
  • It is possible to find studies that fail to find any such association.
  • Social researchers consider the question to be more complicated - many other factors must be included in the model before predictions can be made.
  • Nice summary. But it also illustrates the problem: a lot of the studies are not very good so any conclusion can be supported. The UK recently relaxed supply restrictions and saw declining consumption, yet many still call for tighter rules despite the (weak) evidence that relaxing them didn't cause a national binge. – matt_black Oct 24 '12 at 16:51
  • @matt: My interpretation wasn't that the studies are bad, but that it hasn't got a Yes/No answer. Will a top-end, expensive camera make me a better photographer? Depends; if all the other elements are in place, yes; generally, no. Similarly, will supply restrictions reduce alcohol consumption? Depends... and the Handbook quoted above describes many of the other elements involved. – Oddthinking Oct 24 '12 at 23:47

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