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Report finds alcohol-related deaths have spiked in Wisconsin

Closeup of a glass of craft beer in a woman's hand
Kristen Prahl
Stock Adobe
Closeup of a glass of craft beer in a woman's hand.

Deaths caused by alcohol are way up in Wisconsin. That’s according to a new report by the Wisconsin Policy Forum, which found that alcohol-related deaths had an unprecedented spike in 2020—the most recent year that data is available.

"In Wisconsin, there was a 24.5% increase from 865 deaths in 2019, to 1077 in 2020," says Ari Brown, a researcher who worked on the report.

The report used CDC data on alcohol-related deaths, like alcoholic liver disease, some mental and behavioral disorders, and physical diseases associated with alcohol abuse. The study did not include other deaths related to alcohol use like those caused by drunk driving or domestic violence in which alcohol use was a contributing factor.

Brown cautions that this most recent spike shouldn't be viewed in isolation but rather as part of a larger trend of increased alcohol use and alcohol-related deaths in Wisconsin since the data became available in 1999.

"We really wanted to highlight with this research, both the notion that there was a really swift increase in 2020, and an unprecedented one in this data, but additionally, that this is kind of just the end of a string of a very concerning trend, which is a slowly increasing rise in the rate of alcohol-induced deaths," says Brown.

Part of this research is trying to understand why Wisconsin has seen this slow rise in alcohol-related deaths, the causes and the possible policy solutions.

"I think it's also worth kind of talking about overtime why Wisconsin might be at a point where it's lying pretty far above the nationwide rate for alcohol-induced deaths. We included in our report a number of studies from various sources that looked just at the fact that Wisconsin, both now and going back decades, is among the states with kind of a pretty high rate of binge drinking," says Mark Sommerhauser, a policy researcher and communications director for the Wisconsin Policy Forum.

The study found middle-aged Wisconsinites were most impacted by the rise in alcohol deaths and found a concerning trend among Black Wisconsinites. Black Wisconsinites were decidedly more likely to die due to alcohol compared to the national average. In addition, for the first time since 2005, the most recent data showed the rate of death among Black Wisconsinites was higher than white Wisconsinites.

"Since around 2012 or so, the rate of death for Black Wisconsinites has really been diverging from the rate of death for Black Americans in a really kind of alarming way, where the rate of death for Black Wisconsinites has been going way up," says Brown.

Sommerhauser says solutions such as curbing access to alcohol and increasing taxation on alcoholic goods have been suggested to curb this trend.

"Those are a few things that we've touched on in our report. Again, not an exhaustive list, but just a few possibilities to hopefully get policymakers thinking about what the appropriate response might be," Sommerhauser explains.

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Joy is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
Kobe Brown was WUWM's fifth Eric Von fellow.
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