Big Problem With Wisconsin Drinking


Wisconsin’s drinking culture is a mystery to me.  It always has been.  It was not until I was 19 that I had a full beer on my own while at school.  It was hard for me to fit in at times socially as so much was dependent on drinking, and I just never had the desire to participate.  It took a few years to find my niche among others like me, but Wisconsin is a place with more drinkers than guys like me.  I never have acquired a taste for beer, and am truly at a loss to understand what is fun about going out to only drink, and get ‘smashed’.  So I admit to not liking how Wisconsin is viewed nationally, though correctly I might add, when the topic of drinking is discussed.  After today’s front page story on the national page of the New York Times I suspect more talking will take place. 

 Just in time for snow and drunk drivers on the trails.

When a 15-year-old comes into Wile-e’s bar looking for a cold beer, the bartender, Mike Whaley, is happy to serve it up — as long as a parent is there to give permission.

If they’re 15, 16, 17, it’s fine if they want to sit down and have a few beers,” said Mr. Whaley, who owns the tavern in this small town in southern Wisconsin.

While it might raise some eyebrows in most of America, it is perfectly legal in Wisconsin. Minors can drink alcohol in a bar or restaurant in Wisconsin if they are accompanied by a parent or legal guardian who gives consent. While there is no state law setting a minimum age, bartenders can use their discretion in deciding whom to serve.

When it comes to drinking, it seems, no state keeps pace with Wisconsin. This state, long famous for its breweries, has led the nation in binge drinking in every year since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began its surveys on the problem more than a decade ago. Binge drinking is defined as five drinks in a sitting for a man, four for a woman.

People in Wisconsin are more likely than anywhere else to drive drunk, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. The state has among the highest incidence of drunken driving deaths in the United States.

Now some Wisconsin health officials and civic leaders are calling for the state to sober up. A coalition called All-Wisconsin Alcohol Risk Education started a campaign last week to push for tougher drunken driving laws, an increase in screening for alcohol abuse at health clinics and a greater awareness of drinking problems generally.

The group, led by the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, criticized the state as having lenient alcohol laws and assailed a mindset that accepts, even celebrates, getting drunk.

“Our goal is to dramatically change the laws, culture and behaviors in Wisconsin,” said Dr. Robert N. Golden, the dean of the medical school, calling the state “an island of excessive consumption.” He said state agencies would use a $12.6 million federal grant to step up screening, intervention and referral services at 20 locations around Wisconsin.

The campaign comes after a series in The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel titled “Wasted in Wisconsin,” which chronicled the prodigious imbibing among residents of the state, as well as the state’s reluctance to crack down on alcohol abuse.

Drunken drivers in Wisconsin are not charged with a felony until they have been arrested a fifth time. Wisconsin law prohibits sobriety checks by the police, a common practice in other states.

“People are dying,” the newspaper exclaimed in an editorial, “and alcohol is the cause.”

Wisconsin has long been famous for making and drinking beer. Going back to the 1800s, almost every town in the state had its own brewery. Milwaukee was the home of Miller, Pabst and Schlitz. Now Miller is the only big brewery in the city.

Most people in Wisconsin say the beer-drinking traditions reflect the customs of German immigrants, passed down generations. More than 40 percent of Wisconsin residents can trace their ancestry to Germany. Some experts, though, are skeptical of the ethnic explanation. It has been a very long time, after all, since German was spoken in the beer halls of Wisconsin.

Whatever the reason, plenty of Wisconsin people say they need to make no apologies for their fondness for drinking.

“I work 70, 80 hours a week, and sometimes I just want to relax,” said Luke Gersich, 31, an engineering technician, who drank a Miller as he watched the Monday Night Football game at Wile-e’s tavern. On a weeknight, he said he might drink seven or eight beers. On a weekend, it might be closer to 12.

In Wisconsin, people often say, there is always a bar around the next corner. But drinking is scarcely limited to taverns. A Friday fish fry at a Wisconsin church will almost surely include beer. The state counts some 5,000 holders of liquor licenses, the most per capita of any state, said Peter Madland, the executive director of the Tavern League of Wisconsin.

“We’re not ashamed of it,” Mr. Madland said. He said anti-alcohol campaigns were efforts to “demonize” people who simply liked to kick back and relax with some drinks.

“It’s gotten to the point where people are afraid to have a couple of beers after work and drive home, for fear they’ll be labeled a criminal,” he said. “At lunch, people are afraid if they order a beer someone will think they have a drinking problem.”

But the drinkers have typically had plenty of advocates in the State Legislature. State Representative Marlin Schneider, for example, sees sobriety checkpoints as an intrusion on Constitutional rights of due process.

As for allowing minors to drink in bars with their parents, Mr. Schneider said the law simply allowed for parents to educate and supervise the youthful drinking. “If they’re going to drink anyhow,” said Mr. Schneider, Democrat of Wisconsin Rapids, “it’s better to do it with the parents than to sneak around.”

Technically speaking, the sale is between the bartender and the parent or legal guardian, who then gives the drink to the minor. The bartender has the discretion to decide whether the minor can drink in the establishment.

Before he owned Wile-e’s, Mr. Whaley said there were some cases where he had to say no to a parent. “I’ve had situations where a parent was going to buy drinks for a kid who looked 8 or 10 years old,” he said, “and I had to say, ‘That’s a no-go.’ ”

He also has a rule in his tavern that under-age drinkers must leave by 9 p.m. “When it gets later in the night, people don’t want a bunch of kids running around,” he said.

One recent night, a lanky, blond-haired 17-year-old boy shot pool at the bar with his dad. Both were drinking soda.

In Mr. Whaley’s view, the bar can be a suitable place for families to gather, especially when the beloved Green Bay Packers are on the television. “On game days, a buddy of mine will come to the bar with his 2-year-old, his 8-year-old and his 10-year-old,” Mr. Whaley said. “He might get a little drunk. But his wife just has a few cocktails. It’s no big deal. Everybody has a good time.”

Can I ask who is driving the kids home??!!


7 thoughts on “Big Problem With Wisconsin Drinking

  1. ferrellgummitt

    I love the quote “I work 70, 80 hours a week, and sometimes I just want to relax.” With 5 – 12 beers. Followed by 10 – 12 wine coolers, pork rinds, Buffalo Wings and a Manhattan to top it all off. Ya Hey There.

    Fifth DWI is a Felony in WI? In Illinois the 5th DWI wins you a trip to 26th and California in Chicago on $250,000 bond. For you non-Illinois residents – trust me you don’t want to be there, you wouldn’t send your worst enemy there.

  2. - Deb -

    You’re not alone… as someone who moved to Wisconsin from the DC area — no shortage of colleges or bars there — the culture around drinking and drunkenness is profoundly disturbing.

  3. Clint

    hahaha… as a wisconsin resident.. i do have to agree partially to this article.. but disagree in other parts.. now, i wasn’t aloud to drink in the bars with my parents.. the only drink i was served while my parents were drinking was a non-alcoholic kitty cocktail.. but that’s just the way my parents wanted it… i must say though that my parents are in the minority of the state in that aspect.. but that isn’t what bothers me.. when you say 5 drinks is binge drinking??? i don’t agree with that.. now, i don’t drink beer.. i’ve always hated it.. BUT sitting in a bar for 3 hours and having 5 beers compared to my usual drink (vodka – red bulls) is TOTALLY different.. just last weekend i was out with a buddy of mine and he was drinking a little too much.. and he ended up getting a Driving Under the Influence (and no i don’t have any DUI’s) the cop looks at me and asks me to drive his car.. so i complied with the breathalizer.. now that evening I had 6 Vodka Orange Juices in 3 and 1/2 hours… i weigh 150lbs at 5’7″… i ended up blowing exactly the leagal limit in Wisconsin which is .08… now i couldn’t driving home, but what i’m getting at is 6 beers for a bigger man than i am??? that wouldn’t have done anything almost to an average man at 6 foot 175 lbs.. so where do we really go with the alcohol talk???? and honestly i’m pro marijuana legalization..(totally different topic though) and think alcohol should be ILLEGAL!! alcohol kills ladies and gents.. please be safe!

  4. Frank

    You’re like some character from some episode of Little House on the Prairie or something. Who was that one kid with the really strict mother? He wore thick glasses and was always threatening to tell the teacher on everybody. God, I can see him right now…jeez, I’m getting old and senile.

    And don’t worry about Wisconsin’s reputation as a boozing place because believe me, no one outside of Wisconsin knows anything about Wisconsin. Zilch-o. Nada.

  5. Jim

    Mind your own damn business! Our state is doin just fine. Go take a shot of whiskey you self-righteous douche. Go adopt a greyhound or something.

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