Does Wisconsin Have a Drinking Problem?

Here’s a clear-eyed look at the personal and societal toll alcohol takes in our state.

Kenny Baumann was 7 years old when he took his first sip of alcohol – probably Miller High Life. “When I say I was surrounded by alcohol growing up in Milwaukee, I mean when I was a kid, my mom would give us beer to calm us down,” he says. Baumann began drinking regularly – and heavily – in high school, he says, to fit in with peers and cope with loneliness. By his 20s, he was guzzling three bottles of wine and half a handle of vodka just to get to sleep at night. 

Baumann, now 27, hasn’t touched alcohol in more than two years, but getting there has been anything but easy. While drinking sabotaged his relationships, finances and health – Baumann, who’s 6 feet tall, weighed only 110 pounds in his mid-20s – he didn’t recognize his drinking as problematic, in large part because he was surrounded by it.


 

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It’s almost hard not to drink in Wisconsin, largely because alcohol is almost everywhere, and it’s cheap. Whether Wisconsinites’ thirst for booze is the cause or effect isn’t clear, but one thing’s for sure: Excessive drinking can have detrimental effects on both individuals like Baumann and on a societal scale. “It almost doesn’t matter where you go in this city, there’s probably going to be alcohol there,” says Baumann. 

His co-workers in the service industry commonly drank before, during and after shifts; belligerent relatives at drunken family functions and heavy-drinking friends who joked about their own alcoholism made it easy to justify his own drinking. As a precaution, Baumann completely opted out of driving. “It was easy for me to think I wasn’t hurting anyone if I wasn’t behind the wheel,” he says. 

Then, two years ago at age 25, a switch flipped. Baumann woke up and finally saw the way alcohol had ravaged his body, reducing him to skin and bones. Finally, he realized it was time to stop drinking. He credits detox at Rogers Behavioral Health and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings at the Alano Club on the East Side, an alcohol treatment program where he now serves as volunteer coordinator and café manager, for saving his life. “I’m not religious, but I can only describe it as a coming-to-God moment,” he says. 


THERE ARE PLENTY OF OTHERS who still haven’t seen that light. While alcohol use has risen sharply around the country in recent years, the data are especially grim here in the Badger State – and it’s only getting worse. “In the last 20 years, we’ve seen Wisconsin exceed the nation in several different types of measures of excessive alcohol use,” says Maureen Busalacchi, director of the Wisconsin Alcohol Policy Project at the Medical College of Wisconsin’s Comprehensive Injury Center. “The pandemic poured fuel on the fire.”

Research by the Wisconsin Policy Forum found that during fiscal 2021 – the 12 months that ended on June 30, 2021 – Wisconsin saw the largest increase in alcohol tax revenue (one measure of consumption) in nearly 50 years, an uptick of 17%. This January, the Forum released a second report based on death registry data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Alcohol-induced deaths increased 25% in Wisconsin, the greatest jump in almost two decades, in 2020. Starting that June, alcohol-related deaths began rising in two categories: acute deaths (such as acute alcoholic hepatitis or car accidents) or chronic ones (the long-term impact of excessive alcohol use, like cirrhosis). 

Wisconsin not only has a higher proportion of people who drink compared to other states; it also has more people who drink “an incredible amount,” says Busalacchi. Here, she says, many alcohol-related problems stem from binge drinking, defined as at least four drinks for women and five drinks for men within two hours, a rate that leads to impairment. According to a 2019 report published by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, adults who binge drink in Wisconsin consume, on average, a max of more than seven drinks on any occasion. 


Listen to WUWM’s “Lake Effect” on Sept. 14 at noon to hear more about this story. 


You don’t have to be pouring a few bottles of pinot or a fifth of whiskey a night to pose a risk to your own health or the community. Excessive alcohol use – the term experts in the field prefer over alcoholism and alcohol abuse – also includes heavy drinking, or three drinks daily for women and four for men. (Frequent drinking can increase a person’s risk of becoming physically and emotionally dependent on alcohol just as binge drinking can, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.) Any alcohol consumption before the legal age or during pregnancy, Busalacchi says, also fits the bill. 

Alcohol use disorder, a medical diagnosis involving psychological and physiological dependence on alcohol, poses its own serious risks. “Alcohol is one substance where if you have been drinking excessively and you’re physically dependent, if you do not detox appropriately, you can die from alcohol withdrawal,” says Michelle Maloney, the executive clinical director of mental health and addiction recovery at Rogers Behavioral Health. Like many public health problems, you can’t trace the rise in drinking deaths – or Wisconsin’s excessive alcohol consumption in general – back to one cause, or even a few.  

“A phenomenon like this is so complex, involving sociological, economic and psychological influences,” says Mark Sommerhauser, a policy researcher at the Wisconsin Policy Forum. “It’s one of those things that the more you study it, the more you realize it’s a challenging issue to get your arms around.”

One common myth is that immigration’s transportation of Central and Eastern European cultural norms is to blame for Wisconsin’s drinking problem. “German heritage is the most claimed heritage in the United States,” says Julia Sherman, founding director of the Wisconsin Alcohol Policy Project. “If that was it, why aren’t there similar problems in other states?”

A phenomenon like this is so complex, involving sociological, economic and psychological influences.

-MARK SOMMERHAUSER, POLICY RESEARCHER, WISCONSIN POLICY FORUM


Wisconsin’s heavy drinking history isn’t as long as you may think, either. The state’s first documented commercial brewery – The Owens Brewery in Milwaukee – opened in 1840, but Wisconsin had an active temperance movement almost a decade prior, with many prohibitionist leaders. 

Even after more breweries and alcohol establishments opened, state leaders attempted to limit the negative effects of drinking on communities. A state referendum prohibiting the sale of alcohol passed in 1853 but was vetoed by the governor. By 1908, there were 789 dry villages and towns in Wisconsin. One of the last, Ephraim in Door County, issued its first liquor license in 2016.

Excessive alcohol use, anywhere, is the result of both nature and nurture: Personal risk factors, of course play a role in how much someone drinks – a family history of drinking, mental illness, a history of trauma to name a few – but so does the environment. As Baumann experienced, Wisconsin just happens to be an environment where not drinking is quite difficult, especially if you already struggle with it. 

One of the biggest problems? High outlet density – basically, the sheer number of stores, bars and restaurants that sell alcohol – encourages frequent and heavy drinking. “We not only have a lot of bars in Wisconsin compared to the rest of the nation, but more places that sell alcohol,” says Busalacchi. One 2021 study found Wisconsin’s average density of alcohol outlets ranges from 1.65 to 5.17 per 1,000 residents, compared to just 0.71 to 2.17 in Maryland and 1.09 to 1.22 in Oregon. It’s not just the beer gardens all over Milwaukee County’s parks: These days, you can grab a beer at a coffee shop, Discovery World and walk around with it at the airport. Many grocery stores here have bars in them. A growing number of convenience stores and even pharmacies also sell booze for at-home consumption. 

Unlike many other states, which have shared city and state control of alcohol licensing, Sherman says, Wisconsin leaves it up to its more than 1,800 municipalities alone, without a state board to veto approved community licenses. This licensing issue incentivizes communities to focus on the small picture – often the short-term lure of economic growth – rather than the larger public health costs. “Wisconsin is a strong home rule state. We like to do things locally,” Sherman says. “We have one of the most locally focused systems of alcohol control in the nation.” That means close to 2,000 villages, towns and cities can make their own rules about alcohol, with basically no oversight from the top. 

The state does set a municipal quota on the number of establishments that can sell alcohol, but it’s easy to get around because it only applies to places that sell beer, wine and spirits for consumption at that location – typically bars and restaurants. There’s no limit on the number of locations that can sell for off-premise (take-home) consumption, or only beer. So if a town wants a beer garden in every park and tap lines in every cafe, the state won’t stop it. 

States with major economic grounding in alcohol and beer brewing – such as Wisconsin, Missouri and Colorado – also tend to have lower tax rates on alcohol. Wisconsin has one of the lowest alcohol tax rates in the country, which lowers retail and wholesale prices; Busalacchi says the tax rate for beer hasn’t increased since 1969. It’s hard to know if culture drives tax rates or vice versa, but plenty of research suggests increasing alcohol tax decreases alcohol consumption. A 2010 meta-analysis of 72 studies found an inverse relationship between alcohol tax and excessive drinking or alcohol-related health outcomes. 

What has changed since the 1850s referendum, in which more voting Wisconsinites favored prohibition than not? Maybe the development of more breweries, but Sherman says the notion that selling more booze supports the economy is false. While breweries and bars may create more jobs, alcohol culture can also pose costly harm to individuals and communities. “I sat on a city council in the 1980s, and there was a strong belief that more bars meant economic development,” she says. “There was no research or evidence at that point indicating that it had unintentional negative consequences. The framework was developed without understanding the health and safety consequences for the community.”

Along with the obvious risks to public health, selling too much alcohol can drain the economy. In 2019, binge drinking in Wisconsin inflicted costs of nearly $4 billion. Drinking can interfere with work attendance and performance, along with increasing the likelihood of work-related accidents. Too many drinking establishments also threaten other local businesses by increasing insurance costs – for example, if you’re surrounded by bars, your storefront might be at a higher risk of damage from drunk passersby. 

Everybody that lives in Wisconsin has to pick up the tab for alcohol-related crime, disorder and disease.

-JULIA SHERMAN, FOUNDING DIRECTOR, WISCONSIN ALCOHOL POLICY PROJECT


Even the direct costs to the people of Wisconsin for alcohol-related problems – arrests, accidents and medical bills – exceed what the state makes each year on alcohol. “Everybody that lives in Wisconsin has to pick up the tab for alcohol-related crime, disorder and disease,” Sherman says.

Despite an increased awareness of the harms of alcohol, it will take some time for both policy and culture to catch up. In a state like Wisconsin, where drinking is woven in the social fabric, that might take a little longer. “Once communities understand that alcohol isn’t economic development and in fact, it’s harming the health and safety of the community, they can do better,” says Sherman. 

Some already are. At the municipal level, some communities have declared moratoriums on liquor licensing while they rethink the appropriate number of alcohol establishments for their community. In March 2022, the State Council on Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse published recommendations to reduce the burden of excessive alcohol use, including increasing the cost of alcohol and increasing evidence-based alcohol education throughout the state. Busalacchi hopes more communities will consider these suggestions, but in either case, the goal isn’t to outlaw drinking.

“This wouldn’t hinder people from going to a bar or enjoying a drink or two with a friend,” she says. “It offers some reasonable steps to pull us back in line so we can have a little bit more normal society and culture around alcohol, and when and where we make it available.”

Illustration by Michael Waraksa

IT MIGHT BE TOUGH TO AVOID drinking in Wisconsin, and systemic barriers to health care, especially in marginalized communities, add another hurdle. In general, though, Maloney – who’s treated patients for alcohol use in Wisconsin and is licensed in three other states – says it’s not any more difficult to find support here if you’re re-evaluating your drinking habits or struggling with mental health. (Start with your primary care doctor or therapist if you have questions.)

As for the way booze is embedded in the culture? Until policymakers take bigger steps to address the impact of excessive alcohol use, some Wisconsinites are working to address the issue in their own communities. Baumann oversees the café at the Alano Club, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year and hosts AA and Al Anon groups, plus gatherings for folks who would rather not risk their sobriety at alcohol-heavy events, like a Packers party or a holiday get-together. 

Nonalcoholic beers and cocktails are proliferating alongside their boozy kin at many bars and restaurants. And more alcohol-free establishments are popping up as people evaluate their own relationships with alcohol, which could make it easier to scale back. 

Like Baumann, 40-year-old Angela Mallett grew up surrounded by alcohol. She remembers a distinct difference between living in a dry town in Mississippi as a young child and spending her teen years in Milwaukee. “My grandmother had a fully stocked bar in her basement, and every function was fueled by alcohol,” Mallett says. “A lot of my cousins and I ended up experimenting with it as teenagers because it was so easily accessible.” In 2019, Mallett’s father died of organ failure related to long-term, excessive alcohol use. 

Her personal experience drives a larger mission to empower Milwaukeeans to prioritize their well-being, ideally without alcohol. With the goal of building community around healthy habits, Mallett opened a wellness apothecary on Lisbon Avenue called Honeybee Sage; a second location in Bronzeville is in the works. In addition to selling homemade herbs, tinctures and candles, the new spot will also host yoga classes and mental health seminars. 

A stakeholder recommended selling beer and wine at night to boost revenue, but Mallett saw the suggestion as at odds with her business’ mission – and her personal integrity. Mallett doesn’t consider herself sober – she drinks maybe a few times a year – but even if it cuts into Honeybee Sage’s revenue, she doesn’t want to contribute to a culture where easy-access alcohol fuels unhealthy habits. “I don’t want to capitalize on people that way, where we provide the poison and the cure,” she says. 

Instead of serving up craft beer or cocktails, Mallett says, she’s planning to help people feel “high” in other ways – peaceful ambiance, friendly service, soulful music and, eventually, mood-boosting teas and non-alcoholic spirits. Honeybee Sage will also offer a “mood guide” to help people choose a natural remedy to stave off the blues or worried thoughts – a convenient replacement for a few glasses of alcohol to take the edge off.

For those struggling with drinking – or any mental health condition – Mallett plans to host mental health town halls where patrons can connect with clinicians and, hopefully, find the support they need. Whether someone stops by Honeybee Sage to learn about meditation or sip on herbal tea, Mallett hopes patrons will consider forming new, healthy habits, without relying on a substance that promises short-term pleasure but guarantees long-term harm.   

The concept, to teetotalers, probably seems obvious. But in a place where booze is synonymous with a good time, Mallett’s placing a bet on being a beacon. “People don’t understand how they can have a party without alcohol,” she says. “They think they absolutely need it.” 


Do I have a drinking problem? 

Questions to ask yourself

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines “heavy drinking” as eight drinks per week for a woman and 15 for a man. But problem drinking isn’t always about quantity. 

“We don’t think of one drink as harmful, but for some people, that amount may be harmful or even deadly,” says Michelle Maloney, the executive clinical director of mental health and addiction recovery at Rogers Behavioral Health. For example, if you have liver problems, mental illness or you’ve been diagnosed with alcohol use disorder, one drink may be the difference between health and danger. Alcohol can also negatively interact with certain medications, causing you to get drunk sooner. 

If you feel like alcohol is negatively impacting your life, or you’re just uncomfortable with your habits, it may be time to ask yourself a few tough but important questions. 

Are you drinking more frequently than usual? 

Do you need more alcohol to achieve the same effect? 

Have you unsuccessfully tried to cut back on drinking? 

Is alcohol affecting your daily life – your relationships, work and school? 

Does alcohol use run in your family? 

Do you try to hide your drinking because you’re worried someone might find out?

Has anyone else commented on your alcohol habits?

Have you been diagnosed with anxiety or depression? 

If you have a mental health condition, are you using alcohol to cope? 

If you’re wondering whether it’s time to re-evaluate your relationship with alcohol, Maloney suggests talking to your primary care doctor or a therapist. If you’ve been drinking heavily for a while, it may not be safe to detox on your own. A doctor can help you determine the best way to stop drinking safely.

Need immediate support for substance use?
Call the 24/7 SAMHSA National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP.


Frequent contributor Ashley Abramson lives in Whitefish Bay. This is her first feature for Milwaukee Magazine

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