Immediately after moving to Wisconsin, I became aware of the exceptionally casual attitude toward the excessive use of alcohol when I saw how much people drank at church. Not on Sunday morning, mind you. But at many other social gatherings in church facilities and Katie bar the door on the grounds outside at the fundraising bacchanalia known as church festivals.
Those were just the more respectable venues. Nickel Beer Nights at County Stadium were canceled because of the epic carnage before I became a Brewers junkie, but I heard the legends. I did personally witness a tumultuous local bar version that sadistically combined Nickel Beer Night with Open Mic Night for amateur acts attempting to entertain bellowing drunks ordering 40 beers at a time.
I don’t want to sound too sanctimonious about all this. As a journalist, I certainly did my part for a time to live up to all the stereotypes about the affinity for alcohol within the profession. But it’s healthy to receive a stark reminder once in a while how far out of the ordinary and just how destructive Wisconsin’s enthusiastic encouragement of alcoholism really is.
The latest evidence is pretty incredible. 24/7 Wall St., a financial news organization, compiled demographics and statistics from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and other sources to rate 381 metropolitan areas throughout the country to identify the 20 drunkest cities in America. Get this. Ten of the nation’s 20 most drunken urban areas are in Wisconsin. Wisconsin is by a country mile the drunkest state in the union.
The study used the CDC definitions of binge drinking — four or more drinks on a single occasion for women and five or more for men — and heavy drinking — eight or more drinks a week for women and 15 or more for men. Combining those measures, 18 percent of adults in America drink excessively. In Wisconsin, the percentage is 26.2 percent.
The area identified as Milwaukee-Waukesha-West Allis ranked No. 20 on the top 20 list of the nation’s drunkest urban areas, with 22.5 percent of adults drinking to excess and 36.4 percent of all traffic deaths involving alcohol. The No. 1 drunkest city in America and Wisconsin was Green Bay, with 26.5 percent of adults drinking to excess and a whopping 50.5 percent of traffic deaths involving alcohol. Green Bay was one of only five metropolitan areas nationwide where alcohol was a factor in more than half of all traffic deaths.
The other Wisconsin cities ranking in America’s drunkest 20 were: No. 2, Eau Claire; No. 3, Appleton; No. 4, Madison; No. 6. Oshkosh/Neenah; No. 9, Wausau; No. 10, La Crosse; No. 12, Fond du Lac, and No. 15, Sheboygan. Besides Green Bay, the Wisconsin cities where alcohol was deadliest were Oshkosh/Neenah, where 47.9 percent of traffic deaths involved alcohol, Eau Claire, 38.9 percent and Madison, 38 percent.
One factor jumping out from the list is the number of drunken cities that have major college campuses — Madison, Milwaukee, Green Bay, Eau Claire, La Crosse and Oshkosh. Living in the UWM neighborhood, we still remember the innocent dad who helped move in three small-town high school girls next door. He assured us all three were top students who studied constantly and we wouldn’t even know they were there. We knew. So did mobs of students for blocks around. I’m not sure they survived the semester.
But don’t get the idea it’s the evils of the big city that are corrupting innocents from farms and small towns. There’s another key fact about Wisconsin’s drinking culture buried in the statistics. Remember the 26.2 percent of Wisconsin adults who drink to excess, the highest in the nation. In Wisconsin’s 10 hardest-drinking urban areas, the percentage of adults drinking to excess averages only 24.6 percent. The reason the statewide average is 2 percentage points higher is because those living in small towns and rural areas drink even more heavily.
I grew up in a small town just like that and saw the pattern. It’s getting even worse now as more jobs leave those towns and more businesses are boarded up. The longer folks live there, the more they start looking like potatoes. One of the best routes for escape, of course, is by way of one of those drunken college campuses. That’s what makes the vehement attacks on higher education by Gov. Scott Walker and other Republicans incredibly destructive to so many of their strongest supporters.
But here’s some good news about living in a drunken state. Going on 30 years now, I’ve learned how much more enjoyable and less stressful life can be without alcohol. You never have to worry about getting arrested driving with one eye closed. You’re not a danger to yourself, anyone you love or people you don’t even know. I can tell everybody now I drank my fair share early in the drunkest state in America and lived to tell the tale.
Joel McNally writes a regular column for The Capital Times.
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