Alcohol Poisoning

by on February 21, 2010 at 7:27 am in Economics, Food and Drink, History | Permalink

Deborah Blum writes about the Federal program to poison alcohol during prohibition:

Frustrated that people continued to consume so much alcohol even after it was banned, federal officials had decided to try a different kind of enforcement. They ordered the poisoning of industrial alcohols manufactured in the United States, products regularly stolen by bootleggers and resold as drinkable spirits. The idea was to scare people into giving up illicit drinking. Instead, by the time Prohibition ended in 1933, the federal poisoning program, by some estimates, had killed at least 10,000 people.

What Blum fails to mention is that the Federal program to poison alcohol continues to this day.  Drinking-alcohol is heavily taxed but ethanol is heavily subsidized so poisoning or denaturing is used to prevent arbitrage.  Even today some people occasionally go blind or die when they try to drink some form of denatured ethanol but this is rare since safe, drinking alcohol is readily available, even if expensive.

(FYI, Tyler and I mention this unusual method of preventing arbitrage in our chapter on price discrimination in Modern Principles.)

1 Doc Merlin February 21, 2010 at 7:30 am

Another example of the state creating an externality for the purpose of protecting private interests.

2 Neal February 21, 2010 at 8:09 am

Why would some idiot drink denatured alcohol?

3 Eric H February 21, 2010 at 8:25 am

I wonder if Russia has a similar policy wrt ethanol production. Oh, wait–isn’t vodka production subsidized there?

4 k February 21, 2010 at 9:43 am

In Russia some people have died after drinking refrigerant liquid because they were unable to afford vodka during the long cold winter .
People drink denatured alcohol out of ignorance . It happens. Perhaps the same people who need the label in the car accumulator , the one saying do not drink this water. Drunkards , addicts are not rational people

5 Andrew February 21, 2010 at 11:05 am

Right, tax policy cannot be called a “Federal program” designed to modulate incentives. Incentives don’t actually matter. All that matters is the governments’ good intentions for a policy which in this case is to make drinking alcohol so expensive that people can’t afford it, while making non-drinking alcohol impossible to drink. Marginal costs would never make someone do something that isn’t quite right over a slightly more expensive alternative. For-profit businesses actually hate their customers when they buy their products for some reason other than the business intended. If the government ended the subsidies and taxation difference, it would be probably a century before the for-profit firms would stop ADDING chemicals to the denatured variety.

There is no way the government could end the poisoning of alcohol by, say, not subsidizing the poisoned alcohol. People would figure out some other way to poison their customers. If the government policies were responsible for harming people, they would take action immediately just like they did when they found out that people were actually being poisoned following the addition of poison during prohibition. It would be impossible for the government to have known that bootleggers might have not told customers that the alcohol was poisoned, just as it is impossible to know that people might risk ingesting denatured alcohol today. If, for example, an ignorant kids gets hold of denatured alcohol and drinks it, it is the parent who is intentionally poisoning the child.

Only a DB wouldn’t get this.

6 sean February 21, 2010 at 4:37 pm

does anyone else possess the superhero ability to instantly discern between alex and tyler’s writing?

7 athEIst February 21, 2010 at 6:19 pm

Sorta like paraquat which was sprayed to kill marijuana plants but deterred many from smoking it(although no toxic effects were ever noted). At least during prohibition no one was jailed for possession of alcohol(tho it was confiscated)unlike today with our prisons filled with possession cases.

8 libert February 21, 2010 at 7:59 pm

Doc Merlin said, “Lack of a tax isn’t a subsidy”

Of course it is. Just look at health insurance. But even if I were to accept your claim, then the logical conclusion is that there is no government subsidy to denaturing alcohol (recall Alex’s claim: the government has an “alcohol poisoning program” because it doesn’t tax rubbing alcohol).

9 Russell Nelson February 22, 2010 at 2:11 am

But Alex, it’s simply not plausible that the nice government would do something so evil as to deliberately put poison into something they knew people were drinking. NOT PLAUSIBLE. It doesn’t matter what the facts are — if the facts are correct but would generate incorrect beliefs, then belief must continue in spite of the facts. Reading the links doesn’t help — it just presents the reader with more correct facts that must be ignored.

10 Current February 22, 2010 at 12:09 pm

Mike Huben,

This is how I understand it, it was common before prohibition for alcohol to be denatured. However, not all industrial alcohol was denatured, some was sold for uses that didn’t call for it. For example, supplies between industries such as that for the cosmetics industry. Bootleggers used this as a source. Then, the Federal authorities regulated to ensure that this alcohol was denatured too.

11 Mike Huben February 22, 2010 at 3:52 pm

Current, I checked the statistics at the poison control centers. Poisoning death by denatured alcohol is rare: about 1/3 as frequent as poisoning death by antifreeze. Poison control centers get about as many cases of death from regular ethanol overdoses as for denatured alcohol.

In a nation where private corporations routinely produce products that result in millions of deaths worldwide, such as tobacco products, whining about a few modern poisonings is stupid.

During prohibition, there was a long causal chain resulting in poisonings. Every link could bear some responsibility. I’d suggest that the most responsibility would be borne by those breaking the law and those selling unsafe products. You’d think libertarians would put the blame on the consumers with the principle of “caveat emptor.” But why would they do that when they can lay the blame, however remote, on their great Satan government?

12 Paavo February 28, 2010 at 8:43 am

Non-denaturated alcohol is the poison. It really is. How many people die because of it, and because government makes it illegal to develop and sell less harmful pleasure inducing substances.

13 cezara September 16, 2010 at 6:55 am

The alcohol addiction of a person shouldn’t be something to blame the government.
Alcohol Rehab San Francisco

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