Wisconsin, we have a (drinking) problem

GUEST OPINION

WHAT’S THE TAB FOR excessive drinking in Wisconsin? Our tab is a staggering $6.8 billion each year, according to a report released last week by Health First Wisconsin in conjunction with the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute in Madison (as reported in Tuesday’s Review).

And more than 40 percent of that cost falls on taxpayers to pick up. If you want to split the tab, nearly $3 billion goes to taxpayers each year; excessive drinkers and their families pay $2.8 billion; insurers, employers and others pick up the rest.

Those are sobering costs.

But what are the real costs of excessive drinking?

• Premature death

 Drunken driving

 Alcohol-fueled violence

 Health care bills

 Added cost of law enforcement, prosecution

 Lost worker productivity

Sadly, we know those costs all too well in Chippewa County, where the estimated annual cost is $65.4 million. That’s $1,047 for every resident of our county. (It’s nearly $198 million in Sheboygan County.) But the costs are far higher than dollars could ever show.

Just think of the suffering caused by 16 alcohol-related deaths in Chippewa County last year. Think of the pain caused by 521 alcoholrelated hospitalizations. Think of the embarrassment of 586 alcoholrelated arrests.

While the 20 percent rate of binge drinking in our county trails the state average by 3 percentage points, it exceeds the national average by four percentage points.

So, how do taxpayers end up paying for excessive drinking?

Just ask Chippewa County District Attorney Steve Gibbs, whose office has to handle the legal costs associated with handling far too many cases of drunken driving and other alcohol-related offenses.

Generally, the first three offenses of operating while intoxicated are handled as a noncriminal matter, which means they’re often handled in municipal court. While he isn’t opposed to toughening the law, it means his office will handle those cases - and need more resources to do so.

But, as Gibbs points out, it’s far better to tackle the state’s culture of drinking than to merely work harder on prosecution.

“The best thing I can say is that this is a societal problem with a culture of drinking in Wisconsin,” he told the Herald this week. “Until that changes, we’ll continue to spend more and more money. If the Legislature doesn’t look at what happens when they pass (tougher OWI laws), they put more burden on taxpayers.”

Gibbs wasn’t referring to the many people who have an occasional drink, or who limit their alcohol intake to one to two drinks per day.

Several studies have shown that such behavior comes with some health rewards.

There is quite a difference between the majority of those who drink responsibly and those who drink to excess and whose goal is often to get drunk. It is those binge drinkers who are ringing up the tremendous costs cited in the Madison report.

Our state needs to break down the long-held culture that treats binge drinking as something acceptable as opposed to something that can be deadly.

If you don’t think binge drinking is part of the Wisconsin culture, just look around.

We consume 30 percent more alcohol than the national average. We’re No. 1 nationally in the rate of binge drinking at 25.6 percent - and our binge drinkers binge with more intensity, at an average maximum of nine drinks per episode.

We’re close to the bottom in other areas, however. Only two states have a lower beer tax - something our legislators have collectively lacked the fortitude to increase since 1969. Alcohol taxes bring in $69 million - just 1 percent of the estimated cost of excessive drinking in our state.

Understand, we’re not advocating prohibition. In fact, we wouldn’t enjoy that at all - and it clearly doesn’t work.

We’re talking about curbing excessive, unhealthy behavior that can prove all too costly for all of us.

The Health First Wisconsin report makes three recommendations, from raising the tax to preventing parents from serving alcohol to their under-21 children in taverns to following 38 states that permit law enforcement to conduct sobriety checkpoints.

If you can’t wrap your mind around a $6.8 billion annual tab, just remember that it’s more than Wisconsin spends on the state Department of Public Instruction. It’s also more than we spend on the University of Wisconsin System.

Of course, this isn’t merely an exercise in estimates and numbers. The human cost - the loss of lives, often far too young - is the biggest waste of all. — The Chippewa Herald, March 16

At issue:
The cost of excess drinking
Bottom line:
Take steps to control it


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