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Report: Excessive drinking drains billions from Wisconsin wallets

By Jenna Troum, jtroum@wkbt.com
Published On: Mar 12 2013 06:58:38 PM CDT
Updated On: Mar 12 2013 07:23:56 PM CDT
LA CROSSE, Wis. -

A Wisconsin advocacy organization is hoping if the physical and emotional tolls of excessive drinking don't get your attention, maybe the price tag will.

Health First Wisconsin released new data Tuesday that sheds some light on the cost of excessive drinking.

According to the report, when you add up alcohol-related lost productivity, premature death, health care, criminal justice and car crashes, excessive alcohol use costs the state $6.8 billion a year. In La Crosse County, it’s $105 million. That's about $1,200 a person.

Wisconsin's alcohol tax pays for just 1 percent of it. The rest is shouldered by taxpayers, excessive drinkers and their families, and others, including health insurers and employers.

"We have this huge cost, and we're not getting this through collecting alcohol taxes," said Jeremy Arney, political science and public administration assistant professor at University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.

Arney is sick of seeing the impact of binge drinking on UW-L students -- most recently, Neala Frye, who was found dead in Onalaska last month from intoxication and hypothermia.

"When you have local stories, unfortunately way too often here in La Crosse, yeah, it does weigh on you, because here we are once again. Here we are talking about a student that died," said Arney.

One of the subjects Arney focuses on at UW-L is anti-drinking legislation.

He said the No. 1 strategy across the country to address heavy drinking issues is to raise the alcohol tax.

Bruce Simones, owner of the Recovery Room Bar & Grille, said that's not the solution.

"I think that's always the way we always try to do things. 'Raising taxes is going to fix everything.' And I don't think it does,” said Simones. “It's going to hurt the business owner and he's going to pass it on to people and I really don't think it's going to stop anybody."

Arney said it's worth looking into, and the most important thing is to just start talking.

"We can't just stick our heads in the sand and say, 'That's part of the culture and that's cool,' and then not do anything about it. And so that's what these attempts here at the local and state level are, is an attempt to at least get people aware that it is a problem and maybe think about it a little bit more," said Arney.

Another strategy Arney brought up is to increase the age requirement for someone who can serve drinks in a bar or restaurant from 18 to 21.

Simone agreed the change would give those bartenders some more time to mature before they're in charge of serving alcohol.

State Sen. Tim Carpenter recently announced he would like to see Wisconsin start conducting sobriety checkpoints, where police would randomly stop cars to see if drivers are intoxicated. Sobriety checkpoints are already in place in 38 other states, including neighboring Minnesota.

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