Changing Wisconsin's Culture of Alcohol to Improve Wisconsin's Health

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On a February evening in 2007, University of Wisconsin-Madison freshman Patsy Wagner was crossing Langdon Street, heading back to her lakeshore dormitory after a sorority meeting. She didn’t even see the car that hit her.


The impact threw Wagner against the windshield, but the car kept going. Caught under the vehicle, she was dragged 45 feet down the street as witnesses screamed for the driver to stop.


In May that year, while out on probation for injuring Wagner, the driver was again arrested - a fourth citation for drunken driving. As his public defender told the court, “He realizes he has a serious problem with alcohol.”


Unfortunately, he’s not alone. Wisconsin’s binge drinking and underage drinking rates top the charts. Meanwhile, its penalties for drunk driving are among the most lenient in the country. In Wisconsin, firstoffense drunken driving is a civil forfeiture, similar to a parking ticket. A fourth offense conviction of drunk driving is a misdemeanor.


Almost every day, Wisconsin physicians treat patients like Patsy Wagner in emergency departments and operating rooms. To address the public health emergency that alcohol has become, UW Health has spearheaded All-Wisconsin Alcohol Risk Education (AWARE), a coalition aimed at combating problem drinking in the Badger State. AWARE is calling attention to the health and safety problems created by abusive alcohol use and asking partners from across the state to join a fight to change laws.


The annual economic impact of alcohol-related health and social problems in Wisconsin is nearly $5 billion. Every year, alcohol is responsible for 1,300 deaths, 8,500 traffic crashes, 6,800 traffic injuries, 2,400 substantiated cases of child abuse and 90,000 arrests. First-time drunken drivers account for 68 percent of all fatal and serious injury accidents.


“As western Wisconsin’s Level-One Trauma Center, we treat impaired drivers and their victims almost every day,” says Donna Katen-Bahensky, president and CEO, UW Hospital and Clinics. “In 2007, 30 percent of motor-vehicle accident admissions to our emergency room involved alcohol.”


The University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health’s (UW SMPH) Wisconsin Partnership Program has awarded more than $2.8 million to 12 regional and statewide initiatives directed at alcohol and other drug abuse prevention, early intervention and treatment services. And Richard Brown, MD, of the Department of Family Medicine, directs a $12.6 million federal grant aimed at developing alcohol screening and assistance programs across the state.


“Wisconsin is an island of excessive consumption of alcohol and it is well past the time to change direction,” says Robert Golden, MD, dean, UW SMPH. “Instead of leading in alcohol abuse, we should point the way to solutions - as we have in so many other areas - and address our collective problem with compassion, vigilance and dedication.”