Sunday, November 16, 2008
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. [Mark Godsey]