UW Health officials have unveiled AWARE: All Wisconsin Alcohol Risk Education. Still think Wisconsin doesn't have a drinking problem? Check out some numbers. Dr. Jeff Grossman is president and CEO of the UW Medical Foundation. “In 2005, underage drinkers consumed almost 17 percent of all alcohol consumed in Wisconsin, for a total of nearly $500 million,” Grossman said a Capitol press conference on Tuesday, where Grossman noted that Wisconsin leads the nation in rates of drinking by high school students.
And then there's the issue which, more than any other, drives the debate over drinking in Wisconsin: drunk driving. Donna Katen-Bahensky is CEO of UW Hospital and Clinics, where staff deal with the trauma of drunk driving on a daily basis. Katen-Bahensky said numbers are up alarmingly. “In 2007, 30 percent of our emergency room admissions after motor vehicle accidents involved alcohol. That was a jump from the year 2000, when 11 percent were alcohol related.” And, said Katen-Bahensky, Wisconsin law allows insurance companies to deny coverage for the hospital bills of drunk drivers. “Every patient who comes into our emergency room is treated,” she said. “Yet in the case of drunken drivers, the hospital can be denied payment. This puts a burden on the hospital and on taxpayers, who pay for the care of drunken drivers, through higher premiums.” That's one of the state laws the AWARE coalition would like to see changed. According to information from AWARE, statewide costs in 2007 for alcohol-related accidents and medical conditions totalled $935 million.
AWARE hopes to lobby state legislators to craft legislation to address alcohol abuse in Wisconsin, but there's a public education component as well. “When people learn about what it does to families, not just for the identified drinker but for the other relatives who are affected, and during these very difficult economic times, when they learn how much this is costing us as a state, then I think we can break through the apathy and ignorance,” said Bob Golden, Dean of the UW School of Medicine and Public Health. AWARE aims to build a state-wide coalition to raise public awareness of Wisconsin's increasingly costly and dangerous drinking problem. “We have to explain to people that what we are talking about is not normal social drinking,” said Golden. “We are talking about an epidemic of alcohol abuse.”