We have such a great place to live. We have great schools, good jobs and beautiful lakes and natural resources to enjoy. There's another distinction, though, we shouldn't be so proud of: our cultural acceptance of the overconsumption of alcohol. We drink just to get drunk.
As a result, we see so much human misery and face enormous public safety, health and economic costs because of this misuse of alcohol.
It's tough to pick up the newspaper or turn on the news and not see stories about people being arrested for their third, fourth, fifth, sixth and even 13th drunk driving offense.
We're so used to these kinds of stories that we think this behavior is normal. It's not.
Wisconsin has the absolute worst rate of binge and chronic heavy drinkers in the nation. We have the worst rate of underage drinking in the country. We're also worst in the country for fatal car crashes caused by alcohol.
In Dane County, more than 40% of the fatal car crashes last year involved alcohol. Three times as many people are killed in alcohol-related traffic crashes than are murdered in Dane County each year. Three thousand people are booked on drunk-driving charges in this county each year.
Alcohol is a major factor in many other crimes too, like sexual assault. Nearly 40% of offenders and almost two-thirds of victims are under the influence at the time of a sexual assault. Alcohol is a factor in nearly one in three of the physical assaults in our state.
UW-Madison police issued more than 1,000 underage drinking tickets in 2006. That figure doesn't include the tickets written by other law enforcement agencies downtown. Campus police report finding students unresponsive in their own beds and in bathroom stalls lying in their own vomit. Students have fallen off their bikes, down flights of stairs and even worse. All while drunk.
Do we want our deputies and police officers spending their shifts hauling drunks to detox instead of patrolling our neighborhoods?
As taxpayers, we spend about $60 million each year to run the county jail. Nearly half of the sentenced inmates are in jail for alcohol-related offenses. We spend an additional $8 million in hard-earned county tax dollars on court programs to help those addicted to alcohol and drugs.
That's a major commitment, and we've seen great results. Treating the consequences of alcohol abuse and treating those who suffer from it is important work that we should do as efficiently and humanely as we can. But the real question remains: Can't we do more to prevent this problem?
Alcohol misuse is the third leading cause of preventable diseases. Seventeen thousand people were so impaired in this state last year they had to be hospitalized.
Our state has the highest number of women of child-bearing age who binge drink. One in three women ages 19-44 report drinking alcohol during their pregnancies. That increases dangerous risk factors jeopardizing the well-being of the baby.
It's estimated nearly 25,000 Dane County kids go home to parents who are intoxicated, either passed out on the couch or, worse yet, verbally and physically abusive. This is real human misery.
With all the greatness of our community, why do we put up with this?
We can be different. We all need to look inside ourselves and think twice about what we're willing to accept as appropriate. Whether it's looking in the mirror or talking with a co-worker, friend or family member, we all can be part of the solution.
We need to do more for our young people who right now grow up in a culture thinking the only things to do on Thursday, Friday or Saturday nights involve a bottle-opener, can or keg.
That's why I've spent the past several months studying, reading, listening and reviewing the options for how we can best move forward to address our problem with alcohol. This fall, I'll produce a set of steps I think we need to take.
This isn't about stopping drinking to celebrate. It's about stopping the celebration of drinking.
Kathleen Falk, firstname.lastname@example.org, has been Dane County Executive since 1997. This column is adapted from her recent speech at the downtown Rotary Club.