Some See Big Problem in Wisconsin Drinking
EDGERTON, Wis. — 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.”