Wisconsin has the highest number of binge drinkers in the nation — one in four adults. And binge drinking — defined as five or more alcoholic drinks in a short period of time for men, and four for women — cost the state $6.8 billion in 2012.
That breaks down to about $1,200 per person in higher taxes, more health care, and other costs, according to a new study from the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.
Penny Black, who co-authored the study, spoke with host Audie Cornish on All Things Considered Thursday.
To understand how big an economic toll binge drinking takes, Black and her colleague Jason Paltzer divided the costs into different categories.
The largest portion of the economic burden comes from lost productivity, according to Black. That includes missing work, premature mortality, incarceration, and absenteeism.
In 2011, there were 50,000 hospitalizations due to binge drinking — part of the increased health care costs. And with more than 60,000 arrests of binge drinkers in 2010, the criminal justice system is also taking a hit.
But how did the researchers account for Wisconsin's large population of college students? Surely they have something to do with the state's binge drinking rate. So if you took those students out of the equation would the numbers look different?
Black says yes, and no.
"We know that binge drinking is a huge problem in the 18 to 25-year-old population, but in Wisconsin specifically, that behavior continues past college," she says. "And it's really kind of a norm. And that's why we are No. 1 in the nation as far as binge drinking rates."
Unfortunately, Wisconsin's alcohol problem extends beyond binge drinking: The general alcohol consumption rate for the state is 30 percent higher than the national average.
Black tells Cornish there are a lot of reasons that account for how Wisconsin became the booziest state in the nation.
"A lot of it is availability," Black says. "Alcohol is available at every event — church event, school event, sporting event. We have local control here so there is no monitoring of the number of licenses that are allowed for people to sell alcohol."
The state also has one of the lowest taxes on alcohol in the country. In 2011, Wisconsin collected $69 million in alcohol taxes, which covers just 1 percent of the $6.8 billion in costs detailed in the report.
Many of the state's public health experts, including Black, have argued for raising the tax to temper the problem.
"We know that increased prices are a deterrent for younger drinkers, so it would help on front end in that it would reduce some drinking," she says. "And then on the other end it would help pay for more of the problems that are caused by excessive alcohol use."
If you're curious about how other states rank, you can check out this table the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put together in 2010. It seems there's something regional about the problem (Nebraska and North Dakota are No. 2 and 3, respectively). But you'll also find a lot of people overdoing it in New England, the District of Columbia, Alaska, and Hawaii.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Wisconsin has the highest binge-drinking rate in the nation and that is costing the state $6.8 billion a year. That breaks down to about 1,200 bucks per person in higher taxes, health care costs, and more. This is all according to a new study from the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.
And here to talk more about this is Penny Black, who co-authored the study. Penny Black, welcome to the program.
PENNY BLACK: Hi, thank you for having me.
CORNISH: So, for the study, you guys divided the cost into different categories. Tell us what some of those categories were - the biggest ones maybe or a category that surprised you.
BLACK: Sure. The largest portion of the economic burden comes from lost productivity. And lost productivity includes lots of things; missing work, premature mortality, incarceration, absenteeism, fetal alcohol syndrome. So the largest categories that lost productivity because it encompasses so many different variables.
And then we also have increased health care costs. The criminal justice system has a huge part of the burden, as well as the motor vehicle crashes that result from excessive alcohol use.
CORNISH: Now, in looking across the state, one question I know a number of people would ask is adjusting for the college population. I mean, not to cast dispersions on those schools and universities in Wisconsin, but if you took them out of the picture would the numbers look different?
BLACK: Well, yes and no. We know that binge drinking is a huge problem among the 18 to 25-year-old population. But in Wisconsin, specifically, that behavior continues past college and it's really kind of a norm. And that's why we are number one in the nation, as far as binge drinking rates.
CORNISH: What is it about Wisconsin culture? I mean, you're talking about top binge drinking rates, but the alcohol consumption rate generally is 30 percent higher than the U.S. average.
BLACK: Yeah. So there are a lot of contributing factors to how we got here. A lot of it is availability. Alcohol is available at every event - church events, school event, sporting event. We have local control here, so there is no monitoring of the number of licenses that are allowed for people to sell alcohol. It's done at the municipal level.
Also, the price. We have one of the lowest taxes on alcohol out of the country. So between the availability and the affordability, we're up there as far as consumption rates.
CORNISH: You point out in the study that Wisconsin has one of the lowest alcohol taxes around and that this is not enough to cover this cost of this problem to the state. But how would raising the alcohol tax actually help?
BLACK: In a couple of different ways. One is we know that increased prices are a deterrent for younger drinkers. So it would help on the front end in that it would reduce some drinking. And then on the other end, it would help pay for more of the problems that are caused by excessive alcohol use, which theoretically would be less if the consumption was less. So yeah, it would help on the front-end and the backend.
CORNISH: Penny Black is co-author of a study looking at the dollar cost of binge drinking in the State of Wisconsin.
Penny Black, thank you so much for talking with us.
BLACK: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.