Alcohol in the Dairy State: Can Wisconsin Change its Drinking Culture?

April 10, 2017

Maureen Fitzgerald
Communications Coordinator, ATTC Network Coordinating Office
Editor, NIATx

Wisconsin gets a lot of attention for its alcohol culture. And during April, Alcohol Awareness Month, it’s hard not to be reminded of the news and statistics about alcohol use in the Dairy Stateespecially if it’s your home state.  (The NIATx main office and the ATTC Network Coordinating Office are both located at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.)

For example, last year, Wisconsin made national headlines as the location of 12 (yes, 12!) of the “drunkest” cities in the United States. The online news outlet 24/7 Wall St. published the report, which was based on a review of self-reported data on heavy and binge drinking rates across the country.

Julia Sherman, Coordinator of the Wisconsin Alcohol Policy Project  (WAPP) at the University of Wisconsin Law School, says the report is misleading, but acknowledges Wisconsin has a serious alcohol problem. “The writers at 24/7 Wall Street used aggregated county-wide data and made a judgement about individual municipalities. Interesting story but flawed analysis,”  says Sherman.

Still, there’s no doubt that Wisconsin has a serious problem with over consumption of alcohol:
  • A 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) report estimated Wisconsin’s rate of impaired driving at 24 percent—almost twice the national average of 13 percent. [1]
  • In 2014, Wisconsin had the nation’s third-highest rate of adult binge drinking.[2] (That’s an improvement from previous years when the state ranked highest in that category.)
  • Each year, Wisconsin residents (age 18 or older) consume 143 more servings of alcohol than the average American. [3]

 Changing communities: The Wisconsin Alcohol Policy Project

Unlike most other states, in Wisconsin, alcohol is licensed locally and most enforcement is handled by local law enforcement.

“Wisconsin doesn’t have an alcohol beverage control board (ABC), a state police force, or a department that reviews new alcohol products or advertising,” says Sherman.  On the other hand, municipal licensing of alcohol outlets gives local leaders a significant amount of control over the community alcohol environment – when they exercise it,” she adds.

Sherman has worked on public policy for most of her career. In 2001, she began her work in alcohol policy at the American Medical Association’s Office of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse in Chicago and later served as the national Field Director for the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth at Georgetown University.  In 2009, she chaired the Alcohol, Culture and Environment Work Group of the Wisconsin Sate Council on Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse and authored its final report, Changing Wisconsin’s Alcohol Environment to Promote Safe and Healthy Lives.

The Wisconsin Alcohol Policy Project (WAPP) was established specifically to provide training and technical assistance to support organizations and local governments working to improve their alcohol environments. The evidence-based tools WAPP provides help communities understand the scope of their authority and what they can do to change their alcohol culture.

Targeting the Four A’s

Research on alcohol control shows that across countries and cultures, four basic factors shape the alcohol environment:
  •  Availability
  • Attractiveness
  • Affordability
  • Acceptability  
Three of the four factors are well within the control of local communities, says Sherman. The state alcohol tax rate determines local alcohol prices and is set by the Legislature.

“The number of alcohol outlets, hours and days of sale, alcohol advertising and pricing, and how acceptable it is to use or misuse alcohol all contribute to the local alcohol culture,” she adds. “For example, Wisconsin allows more types of locations to sell alcohol and municipalities often license more locations to sell alcohol than other states.”
See Google data: Wisconsin's bars outnumber grocery stores almost three to one
In some communities, an over-concentration of alcohol outlets has led to serious problems with alcohol-related crime and disorder.

“When I ask local police what percentage of their calls for service are alcohol-related the reply is rarely 50% or less.  Some officers estimate that 85% to 90% of their calls for service are alcohol related- a huge burden for the community,” explains Sherman.

Communities Are Taking Action

A number of Wisconsin communities are using local ordinances to address alcohol-related problems.  For example, unlike other states Wisconsin state law does not cover bartender drinking, so a number of communities adopted “sober-server” requirements to limit the blood alcohol level of people serving or selling alcohol. 
Two campus communities, La Crosse and Menomonie, adopted public intoxication ordinances to enable law enforcement to intervene and get seriously intoxicated individuals to safety or medical care.  After a string of drownings, the City of La Crosse adopted a series of ordinances that, combined with special efforts, have reduced alcohol problems at all three local campuses.

One area where Wisconsin has started to reverse the trend is in underage drinking.

“Our rate of underage drinking has dropped from the highest in the nation to the national average,” says Sherman. “We still have a long way to go to change drinking behaviors in Wisconsin, but this success shows that if we can change, nobody else has an excuse not to.”

What’s the drinking culture in your state? Is your state also working on strategies to reduce problem alcohol use a the local level? Share your story in the comment section below.

[1] Wisconsin Department of Health Services, Division of Care and Treatment Services and Division of Public Health. Wisconsin Epidemiological Profile on Alcohol and Other Drugs, 2016 (P-45718-16). Prepared by the Division of Care and Treatment Services, Division of Public Health, and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.
[2] Ibid
[3] Ibid

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