Jenny has spent most of her life in Wisconsin, but she hasn’t always been in contact with alcohol.
His parents didn’t drink much. She thought of herself as the type of student who would go out on weekends, but she would never pass out.
Then that changed.
In her thirties, after Jenny and her then-husband had children and moved to Walworth County, she began drinking so much she had difficulty remembering. Neighborhood pizza parties, summer afternoon visits, and children’s birthday parties all began to involve beer, wine, or mixed drinks.
“We were the fun house to be on a Friday afternoon,” she said.
She tried to pull out – have fewer gatherings, use a smaller cup, make some rules for herself, get those mini bottles of wine. But she was alone. She said her husband and the rest of the subdivision continued with their parties.
Jenny, who now lives in Elkhorn, said the alcohol had made friends with those neighbours, increased feelings of isolation and anxiety, harmed her ability to be a normal mother and ended her marriage.
“It’s not a sustainable lifestyle,” she said. “It completely changes you. My marriage is over because we turned into different people.”
Last year, she said alcohol killed one of those neighbors. She still feels immense guilt, remembering those parties at her old house.
“I went to his funeral crying my face“, she said. “I couldn’t even control myself.”
Jenny asked that her last name be withheld out of respect for her privacy and that of those she spoke to.
Wisconsin loses hundreds of people like Jenny’s neighbor every year. A new report suggests the COVID-19 pandemic could be making the problem worse.
As Wisconsin’s binge drinking culture mixed with the added turmoil of the pandemic, 2020 saw the largest year-over-year increase in alcohol-related deaths besides 20 years old.
A new report from the Wisconsin Policy Forum Examination of mortality data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that Wisconsin had seen a 24.5% increase in alcohol-related deaths from 2019 to 2020, from 865 deaths to 1,077. In comparison , the increase from 2018 to 2019 was 10%.
The nation as a whole has seen 25.7% more of these deaths in 2020 than in 2019.
“The pandemic has exacerbated a long-term trend,” Patrick Remington, professor emeritus in the Department of Population Health Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told WPR’s “Central Time.”
But long-term trends show that Wisconsin stands out when it comes to how the rate of those deaths has changed over time.
Since 1999 — the first year for which the CDC has data — the rate at which Wisconsin residents suffered alcohol-related deaths almost tripled. Nationally, the rate has roughly doubled.
The trends were also particularly troubling for the state’s black and middle-aged residents, according to the report.
The report only looked at deaths directly attributed to alcohol, such as liver disease, alcohol poisoning or alcohol-related cancer. The data does not include deaths caused by drunk driving or falls, the latter particularly affected the elderly population of the state.
Although the increase in alcohol-related deaths from 2019 to 2020 was particularly steep, the report shows a steady year-over-year increase in such deaths since 1999.
READ MORE: High Tolerance: A 2019 WPR series about Wisconsin’s complicated relationship with alcohol
Dig into the data
Digging deeper into the data, the policy forum report cited a “worrying trend” for the state’s black population.
Wisconsin had the fourth highest alcohol-related death rate for its black population in 2020, with only Colorado, New Mexico and Nebraska having higher death rates.
While the death rate is still lower than that of Wisconsin’s white population, over the past decade the rate of such deaths for black Wisconsin people has exceeded national levels. And in 2019, the alcohol-induced death rate among black Wisconsinites was higher than that of white Wisconsinites for the first time since 2005.
The alcohol-induced death rate among blacks and whites in Wisconsin is still significantly lower than that of the Native American or Alaska Native population, according to the report.
The report also highlighted a staggering increase in the death rate of middle-aged Wisconsinites over the past 20 years. The alcohol-induced mortality rate for the 45-64 age group increased by 158.9% from 1999 to 2020. The 25-44 and 65-84 age groups only increased by 112 .9% and 106.1%, respectively.
Alcohol is ubiquitous in Wisconsin culture. A 2019 report entitled “The burden of excessive alcohol consumption in Wisconsinfrom the UW-Madison Population Health Institute found that the rate of heavy drinking in the state was higher than that of the United States as a whole.
Cities in Wisconsin typically pepper the rankings of the “the most drunk” in the USA
State residents could also buy even more alcohol during the pandemic. A september forum report showed that alcohol tax revenue in fiscal year 2021 increased 16.6%, according to data from the state Department of Revenue. This is the highest rating for almost 50 years.
RELATED: Wisconsin ranks worst in nation for binge drinking
All this has an economic effect. The estimated annual cost of heavy drinking to the state was $3.9 billion, according to the UW-Madison report. Most of that – $2.6 billion – came from ‘lost productivity’, while estimates showed the state also lost hundreds of millions of dollars related to excessive alcohol consumption. through the criminal justice and health care systems.
In fiscal year 2021, the state collected $73.8 million in liquor tax revenue.
Experts don’t know what the way forward will look like.
Ari Brown, a researcher at the Wisconsin Policy Forum, said it can be difficult to know what’s going on at the local level, because the state has more than 1,800 municipalities, each of which is largely responsible for distributing business licenses. ‘alcohol.
“It can be quite difficult to know what is going on behind the scenes there,” he said.
The forum report includes potential policy ideas for reducing the widespread effects of alcohol on Wisconsin residents, should lawmakers want to go that route. These ideas are:
- Revisit it state alcohol tax rate, which is among the lowest in the country. Research suggests that higher tax rates can reduce consumption, according to the report.
- Reduce the number of liquor licenses issued or the hours that Wisconsin residents can purchase liquor.
- Allocate more funds to alcohol abuse prevention, intervention and treatment.
The authors of the report admit that the first two options would be difficult to achieve, politically. The third, however, may garner more bipartisan support.
On a smaller scale, Remington, the professor, mentioned the importance of having a healthcare system where patients can talk with their doctors about drinking — and doing that routine. He said evidence shows that “brief advice” at the start can have positive effects for patients.
Additionally, he said people resort to drinking alcohol to treat underlying mental health or emotional issues, such as feelings of hopelessness.
“I hope policymakers aren’t just looking at population-wide strategies, but that we’re thinking about each patient and what the healthcare system can do,” he said.
A conversation with her doctor is part of what helped Jenny cope with her own alcoholism.
Before, she said she imagined an alcoholic as an “old man alone, drinking in a bar.”
“Mostly it’s 35-year-olds at home with their parent friends,” she said.
She wants other parents – perhaps living in the suburbs with new homes, circular roads and dead ends – to know that alcoholism can strike them and their loved ones.
She would like to see more sober social activities, such as bars that only serve non-alcoholic drinks.
After about nine months completely sober, she said her drinking was under control enough to handle low to moderate amounts only on weekends. And she’s in a happier place now.
She struggled and she learned a lot along the way. But all of this comes at a cost: lives changed, friends lost, trauma lingering.
“It didn’t have to be like this,” she said.
If you or someone you know is struggling with an addiction, call SAMHSA National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357. If you or someone you know is considering suicide, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “Hopeline” to 741741.