Monday, November 17, 2008

Wisconsin Hits The Big Time(s)

Wisconsin's inability to stop drinking (and doing things after they drink, like driving) has made the New York Times. For the week around October 18th, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel ran a whole series of articles about this very topic.

From The Times: "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."

I've stayed relatively silent about this topic for a few reasons. But (you knew there was a "but" coming didn't you?), I have a few issues with this characterization of Wisconsin's "binge drinking" problem. First, let's get the "definition" of binge drinking out of the way: Five drinks in one sitting for a man; four for a woman. What is a sitting? 30 minutes? 1 hour? 3 hours? 7 hours? If I'm sitting at a bar watching a late football game and then stick around for dinner and maybe say hello to some friends, it could easily be "one sitting" from 3pm until 11pm. Five drinks in eight hours? This is a problem? I don't know about you, but I would not be legally drunk after that, provided that the five drinks were relatively low-alcohol beer.

But, that's the second problem with the definition? What's a "drink"? A beer? What kind of beer? Bud Light (about 4% ABV)? Dogfish Head 120 (about 21% ABV)? Wine (12-22% ABV)? Liquor (40-50% ABV)? In their standard serving sizes? We've already talked about that whole ball of wax.

Sure, if I did 5 shots of Jack Daniels in 20 minutes, I might be a bit schnockered and probably shouldn't drive a car 10 minutes later. But, this activity isn't unique to the University of Wisconsin; stupid college students all over the country do this. [ed note: MBR does not endorse this activity - it leads to doing stupid things like drinking 5 more shots in the next 30 minutes, and you don't even want to know about after that - and it sucks to puke your brains out for the next 12 hours] The "problem" that the Times (and the Journal Sentinel) see is this:
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.
Namely, that some 31-year old engineering technician is downing "7 or 8" (probably 10) on a weeknight (though which weeknight? Monday Night? Are the Packers on?) and "closer to 12" (probably 15-18) on the weekends.

A football day? Is he at home or a bar? Did he drive? Did he neglect his children? Is it every day or just a few times a month?

I'm not making excuses, I'm just saying that this article is fairly imprecise in its language. And we all know how much I hate imprecise language.

If it doesn't affect anyone (including the drinker), who cares? The problem is when this person does his drinking at a bar and drives home. The problem is when this person goes to a Packers game 3 hours away from where he lives and has no option but to drive home. The problem is when this person goes home and beats his wife or children. The problem is when this person can't make it through a day without getting drunk.

As much as the Madison City Council would like you to believe otherwise, the solution is not prohibition. The solution is allowing random alcohol checkpoints (currently "unconstitutional" in this state). The solution is viable public transportation alternatives (not raising the fare on an impractical and nonsensical bus system). The solution is harsher penalties for alcohol-related crimes. The solution is better alcohol counseling and family abuse prevention.

The solution is not taking your ball and going home.


  1. But, that's the second problem with the definition? What's a "drink"?

    Since you love precision, I'll start my comment by standardizing a dosage. Let's say, for the sake of discussion, that "a drink" is the consumption of 18 mL of ethanol.

    What is a sitting? .... Five drinks in eight hours? This is a problem?

    A five hour, five drink "sitting" may not dramatically increase your risk of causing a traffic fatality. (In fact, I believe it might reduce your risk. After all, you'd be well aware that you've been drinking, and nervous about explaining that fact to an officer. You don't sound like the kind of guy who's nonchalant about drinking and driving. If anything you might more vigilant about obeying speed limits, checking your blind-spots, etc.)

    But that doesn't mean damage isn't done. Your liver still has to process all that alcohol. Slow, steady drinking on a chronic basis will consistently lead to health issues, which leads me to my point...

    If it doesn't affect anyone (including the drinker), who cares?

    So, I dispute the "including the drinker" part. But, then again, why should anyone hassle me about what I do with my own body?

    Slippery slope, here. We do live in a paternalistic society. Cocaine is illegal. You can't get an electrical hookup without getting an inspector to check-out your wiring. You can't even drive a car without wearing a seat belt.

    I don't want the government telling me how much I can drink. But if "Healthy Wisconsin" offers me state-run health-care, I'd be willing to keep it under 14 drinks per week for a man and 7 per week for a woman to lower their costs.

    It all touches on the trade-off between individual liberties and the social order.

    In any case, cheers to beers!

  2. As much as the Madison City Council would like you to believe otherwise, the solution is not prohibition.

    ???? I doubt the current Madison City Council would ever endorse prohibition.

    It would have been nice if more of the city council had been against the bus fare increase.

    Does this entry mean you support commuter rail?

  3. My drinking sabbatical should lower Wisconsin's binge drinking statistics. Unfortunately, the change could take a while to register. I'll be on the Sympathy Wagon for more of 2009 than 2008.

  4. FOM: It was a reference to the Madison City Council's complaints about the selling of malt liquor and 40ozs in the downtown area. As for commuter rail - personally, yes I fully and whole-heartedly endorse commuter rail for a whole host of reasons from convenience to congestion-reduction to drunk driving reduction to environmental and more; as MBR, however, I would endorse it for the specific reason of allowing for alternative transportation methods that help to alleviate drunk driving.

  5. The issue that applies to everyone is that here health is compromised by drinking above recommended limits. Tissue of the heart muscle breaks down. Blood pressure goes up. Depression and poor sleep increase. So just because you're not driving drunk or beating your family doesn't mean that alcohol isn't having a long, significant impact on your life.


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