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N.C. bans alcoholic drinks — does this mark the return of Prohibition?


Prohibition was partially reintroduced in North Carolina in November, and no one noticed. In the coming months, stunned customers will stomp out of the state's ABC stores, furious to learn they can't buy pure grain alcohol like Everclear anymore.

Seemingly out of the blue, the 95-percent pure alcohol was banned by Mecklenburg County's ABC commission after they pulled sales data and realized that 50 percent of pure grain alcohol sales occur at ABC stores near college campuses.

That was the only reason given for the ban. When I pressed North Carolina State Health Director Jeffrey Engel for an example of an individual who had died or suffered serious harm because of overconsumption of pure grain alcohol in the last five years in the state, he admitted he couldn't. It also has nothing to do with drunk driving. Since 1982, alcohol-related fatalities have declined dramatically in North Carolina. Some 300 fewer people annually die that way on average now.

So Engel and the state had no data at all on the relative dangers of pure grain alcohol on hand when the decision to ban it was made?

"You're absolutely right," Engel admitted to me in a radio interview. "We don't have direct evidence, and if a ban on the sale is not going to be popular, we can reverse it. A lot of it has to do with stories that we hear. And we don't act on robust data sets, but what we do have are certain known behaviors among youth."

Just weeks before the pure grain alcohol ban, the federal government outlawed caffeinated alcoholic beverages, like Four Loko, that have 6 to 12 percent alcohol content. A Lexis-Nexis search showed just 11 people nationwide made the news after consuming these drinks in the last calendar year after they either blacked out, died or got in an automobile wreck that killed someone. Problem is, in every case, they also consumed other alcoholic beverages and/or illegal drugs.

Mecklenburg ABC board CEO Paul Stroup told WCNC that pure grain alcohol was banned after more than three decades of sale here because it's "probably the most dangerous product we sell" and has "no redeeming social value."

You'll still be able to buy 151-proof rum at state-run ABC stores — for now. But when I asked, Engel admitted that it was also dangerous. Ditto, Engel said, for 100-proof beverages. So why then is the state still selling them in ABC stores? Shouldn't it stop?

Engel says the ABC board should gradually outlaw more types of alcoholic drinks.

"Maybe the dial needs to be dialed down even further when there is readiness among the ABC commission," Engel said. "Amongst our own health data it shows increased binge drinking among college youth. When there is societal readiness, we can just ratchet it down as far as tolerable."

Think about it: In the last month, two classes of alcoholic beverages have been yanked from our shelves by the federal and state government with little or no warning. At this rate, you've got to wonder what will still be legal to drink by June.

The last time we tried something like this, we called it Prohibition, and it didn't go so well. For 13 years starting in 1920, violent organized crime rings formed around the illegal manufacture and delivery of moonshine. For now, 20-somethings will just have to drive to South Carolina to get their Everclear and go back to mixing the high-caffeine energy drink Red Bull with vodka, my own drink of choice during my tour of duty on the bar scene.

Bureaucrats never retreat when they learn they can ban something based on flimsy evidence that it's dangerous. When there is little public outcry after the fact, that just motivates them further.

They only question is: What alcoholic beverage they will target next?