Wi: Wisconsin’s drinking problem: State board releases 61 recommendations to lower excessive alcoholism
When a Rock County woman drank herself to death in 2014, her mom threw herself into advocacy in a state where excessive drinking ranks higher than anywhere else in the country.
By Naomi Kowles
March 29, 2022
ROCK COUNTY, Wis. — A cabinet in Jenny Hallett’s home bears the weight of remembering tragedy: daughter Brittany Rose’s favorite shot glass. A baby picture. Chapstick. Slippers Jenny sent Brittany while she celebrated Halloween inside the walls of a treatment center.
The stuffed animals from her bed, where Jenny found her daughter dead on November 5, 2014–she drank herself to death.
Brittany Rose was 26 years old when she died, 13 credits away from getting her bachelors degree in accounting from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. All her life, including high school and most of college, she’d been a grade A student. The transcripts beside her body on the bed told the story of an addiction that now took no mercy on her mind: D’s and F’s.
“That very night, I was dedicated for the rest of my life to try to save other people from having to go through what she went through,” Hallett recalled, looking at the photo of her daughter she held in her lap. “This kinda keeps me connected to her. I really do believe she was with me, guiding me through all of this.”
Her daughter’s death drove Jenny into advocacy, and eventually led her to get involved with the State’s Council on Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse (SCAODA). For the past year, she’s attended most meetings of an ad hoc committee that released 61 recommendations this week for Wisconsin to consider to tackle the problem of excessive drinking*. Those recommendations include raising the price of alcohol, decreasing the density of bars in the state, and cracking down on outlets selling to children.
“I’m telling you, the best way to get into recovery is to stop the addiction before it happens,” Hallett said. “It’s an agonizing brain disease to witness.”
Alcohol deaths rise during pandemic in ongoing trend
The report comes on the heels of other research during the pandemic finding a sharp increase in alcohol-related deaths in Wisconsin. AWisconsin Policy Forum report earlier this year found alcohol-related deaths rose by about 25% in 2020, the biggest increase in two decades. More than 1,000 Wisconsinites died that year from alcohol–a figure that doesn’t include deaths where alcohol may have been a factor, such as car crashes, falls, or suicides.
“Early 2021 numbers do not show the excessive alcohol use going down to pre-pandemic numbers,” said Maureen Busalacchi with the Wisconsin Alcohol Policy Project, who chaired the ad hoc committee putting out this week’s report. “We’re hoping we’re not stuck here, that we can bring it down; but it will take action on several levels.”
But the pandemic trend just exasperates a much longer trend in Wisconsin, where the WPF report found alcohol-induced deaths nearly tripled between 1999 and 2020, a rate far faster than its national counterpart–and most pronounced in the 45-64 age bracket.
“Wisconsin is just out of the norm, and it costs us a lot of money to be out of the norm,” Busalacchi said. “It costs us in health and lives…but it’s also costly to have a society that drinks to excess. The result is you find alcohol involved in motor vehicle crashes, violence, assaults, suicides.”
Recs: Pricier booze, fewer bars, license monitoring
SCAODA’s report includes policy recommendations for local and state government, agencies, community organizations, healthcare, and the alcohol industry, the most important of which include:
- Raising the price of alcohol
- Reducing density of alcohol outlets
- Compliance checks to make sure outlets aren’t selling to children
- Metrics to help communities identify where excessive drinking is happening most frequently
- Screenings and brief interventions
Local governments–cities, tribes, municipalities–bear much of the responsibility in regulating alcohol use in Wisconsin, since they are the distributors of alcohol licenses and often decide how much alcohol is appropriate for their communities. The report urges municipalities to map alcohol outlets and work with law enforcement and community leaders to consider moratoriums on new licenses in areas where clusters are developing.
“For years, municipal leaders operated under the now disproven belief that increasing the number of locations that sold or served alcohol would benefit the community,” the report found. “Within the last decade it has become clear that clusters and areas with an overconcentration of alcohol outlets increase the likelihood of alcohol related disorder and crime even when all the licensees are obeying the law.”
The report also recommended that the state government stop any further increases to the number of Class B liquor licenses that municipalities can approve, as well as encouraging law enforcement to track the “Place of Last Drink (POLD)” data. Figuring out where in the community people are being last served can help municipalities work with licensed owners on training how to avoid over-service.
Additionally, the report encourages local governments to:
- Stop sales of alcohol at gas stations
- Ban alcohol advertising on mass transit vehicles and property
- Ban consumption-based drink specials
- Designate alcohol-free parks
- Crack down on parties/gatherings in college campus areas
- Mandate ethics code training for anyone who makes government decisions about alcohol
Plus, recommendations for state government include:
- Increasing the alcohol tax
- Fund and train compliance checks on underage drinking
- Repeal a state law that allows children to drink or buy alcohol if they are with a parent or legal guardian
- Regulate alcohol delivery
- Implement a public awareness campaign educating people on connection between drinking and cancer
By the numbers: Wisconsin’s drinking culture
According to national county health rankings, every county in Wisconsin ranks well above the national average for excessive drinking.
Credit: Map by Nicholas Pierson, data by County Health Rankings
While the trend has decreased in the past decade, the number of children between 12 and 18 who are drinking alcohol still remains higher than the national average (29.8 of 12 to 18-year-olds in Wisconsin, compared to 29.2% in the U.S.)
The gap between Wisconsin and the national average widens further for adults: 21.9% of Wisconsin adults say they have done binge drinking in the last month, compared to 16.1% nationwide. That level of binge drinking is costing Wisconsin $3.9 billion a year, according to research from the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute. When using a federal definition, the report finds nearly a quarter of Wisconsinites meet the definitions for binge drinking every week.
Starting at the root of the problem
For the experts behind the recommendations, fixing Wisconsin’s drinking problem involves reaching people like Brittany Rose long before they’ve reached the need for intensive treatment.
“The recommendations are really focused up stream,” Busalacchi said. “The more effective method is to change the culture around our alcohol use and bring us back to a more normal level.”
“It’s so glorified in our society,” Hallett said. “People just, they believe that it’s a choice to stop, as every single person who’s ever become addicted believed until they realized that’s not true.”
Brittany’s addiction began in college, her mother said, in ways that looked completely normal at the time. Family and friends didn’t realize how bad it was getting–until her mom saw her crying in her room every night.
“I think she knew she was eventually gonna die,” Jenny said.
“Everybody knows somebody (struggling with alcohol abuse), even if they don’t know they know them. She was very good at hiding it. I mean, most of her friends had no idea.”