Why you should care
Because it takes a village to sober up.
Dozens of bars dot the half-mile stretch along College Avenue that forms the heart of Appleton, Wisconsin. The plentiful taps cater to all walks of life, from the smoky X-tra 920 nightclub to the rustic Leg Lamp Lodge, the spooky Dr. Jekyll’s to the grandma-festive Cleo’s Brown Beam Tavern. Amber Thiel, a 20-year-old Appleton native, works in a watering hole tucked between those joints. “Drunkest city in America,” the bartender says, finishing a reporter’s question midsentence. The ranking hardly surprises her: “All of my friends, most of their dads are alcoholics. That’s what we do on weekends — we drink.”
That devotion — and frankness — isn’t uncommon in the Badger State. An hourlong drive down the Lake Winnebago shoreline, from Appleton to Oshkosh to Fond du Lac, includes three of the booziest cities, not just in the state but in the country, according to national data gathered by a joint program between the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. In total, Wisconsin boasts seven of the top 10 cities for self-reported binge drinking. The verb choice is intentional: After the ranking was revealed last year, a local newspaper led with, “You can’t say we don’t know how to party here in Appleton” and asked residents whether they were proud or embarrassed: Many responded in the vein of “I’ll drink to that.”
The [liquor] industry tends to support interventions that occur after you’ve left your money on the bar.
Julia Sherman, coordinator, Wisconsin Alcohol Policy Project
Despite the gallons of alcohol flowing through America’s Dairyland and the lobbying of the powerful Tavern League of Wisconsin, a few activists are rallying around changes aimed at the state’s drinking culture. “Wisconsin is waking up,” says Julia Sherman, coordinator of the Alcohol Policy Project at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Lawmakers are also finding a newfound voice on an issue that has long been politically toxic. “We really need to make [the laws] stricter,” says state Rep. Dale Kooyenga, a Milwaukee-area Republican.
The change starts in communities, since Wisconsin is one of a handful of states that leave alcohol licensing to local municipalities. Wisconsin led the nation in underage drinking only a decade ago, but now it’s just under the national average, says Sherman. Nearly 100 organizations have banded together to curb consumption through creative measures, including creating standard alcohol-service guidelines for the state’s popular summer festivals, which are often hotbeds of underage drinking. The area’s neighborly trust also abetted abuse, says Sherman: “We were able to cut down a lot of underage drinking by telling people to lock their garages or beer fridges.” The community of La Crosse is one success story: In the early aughts, multiple cases of drunk college students drowning in the Mississippi River led locals to usher in commonsense reforms. La Crosse became the first city in Wisconsin to pass laws against public intoxication — the state doesn’t have such a law — and is considering banning flat-rate drink specials, which locals say encourage binge drinking. Bar owners object that such a ban would limit business.
Those efforts pair with a legislative session in Madison that has been especially active on curbing alcohol abuse. The U.S. Department of Transportation selected the state capital as one of 10 test sites for self-driving cars, and the technology could be a boon for public safety, says Adam Neylon, the Republican chair of the Wisconsin House Committee on Jobs and the Economy. Wisconsin is considering multiple bills to further punish five- and six-time drunk drivers, to make ignition interlock devices widespread and to stiffen penalties for minors drinking on private property.
Those bills continue a trend of Midwestern states grappling with drinking norms. Minnesota got a jump-start on the ignition interlock devices, passing a law in 2011 that required some first-time offenders to install the Breathalyzers, which allow only sober drivers to start vehicles. And in Iowa, a Senate bill requiring more ignition locks and twice-daily sobriety tests is getting serious attention. The adjustments are especially urgent in this part of the nation: According to the health institute study, 18 of the 20 American cities with the worst binge drinking are in Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota.
Wisconsin faces additional challenges that don’t apply to its upper Midwestern neighbors. It remains the only state nationwide that doesn’t criminalize driving under the influence; instead, it issues fines to first-time offenders. Some lawmakers worry that the money spent on criminalization could be put to better use in prevention and education programs (some studies estimate that additional incarceration could potentially cost the state about $20 million per year). Other politicians point to the Tavern League as the puppeteer behind it all. The group supports ride-share programs to decrease drunk driving, but often opposes changes to liquor licensing laws that policy experts say encourage excessive drinking. “It’s pretty much straight from the alcohol industry’s playbook nationwide,” Sherman says. “The industry tends to support interventions that occur after you’ve left your money on the bar.” (The Tavern League did not respond to requests for comment.) “They are very powerful,” says Kooyenga, “and it’s hard to get bills around them.”
Personal narratives often drive change. When given a brief moment to speak at a public event, state Rep. Jimmy Anderson sat and read a list of the year’s double-digit drunk-driving offenders in Wisconsin. In 60 seconds, he was only able to get through March. The Democrat sat because the issue is far from mere politics for him: Seven years ago, a drunk driver in California plowed into his car, paralyzing the young law student and killing his father, mother and brother. “There is a cultural closeness to alcohol, particularly beer, that probably goes back to [the state’s] Germanic roots,” says Anderson, who was elected in November and who first noticed rampant drinking when he attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2008. “There is nothing wrong about that. But in the end, there’s a degree of personal responsibility that has to take place.”
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